Covid-19 has transformed our ways of life and work beyond modern comprehension. The pandemic has caused downtime for most industries, not least the wider events sector, and curtailed the travel plans of many businesses.
For the industrial gases industry, whose core pillars are steeped in personable relationships and the face-to-face connection, this has presented a major challenge in doing business. The industry has been forced to rethink how it operates – and reimagine those core pillars. It has had to further strategise the delivery of products and services, while also being pushed ever more towards realising the digital technologies already at its disposal – from e-commerce to webinars and video calls.
Part two of gasworld’s webinar series, Optimising Operations and Supply Chains, featured presentations from Cai Weiguo, Partner of TrackAbout Asia-Pacific, and Art Anderson, Managing Principal for AH Anderson Consulting. Hosted by Rob Cockerill, gasworld’s Global Managing Editor, the webinar picked up the baton of last week and the Lessons Learned from Lockdown, offering insight into the operational side of the gases industry during a pandemic.
“For those of you watching last week, you’ll know that we set our stall out for this Bandwidth in Your Business series by exploring the transformation in our business climate, and the lessons learned from lockdown,” Cockerill said in his introduction.
“Our guests discussed the importance of digital technologies, the rapid uptake of those technologies during the Covid-19 pandemic, let alone during and after it, and of course the many ways in which the industry has had to adapt to these new business conditions we face. Hydrogen also emerged as a hot topic during the webinar, both for our panellists and our viewers.”
“Today we pick up that baton of last week and look more at the toolkit to succeed in this environment,” Cockerill said.
“During the height of the pandemic in Asia, Europe and North America back in April, we heard so many stories of our industry’s agility in meeting frontline oxygen demand, in juggling its workflows and adapting its supply chains – think of the stories from Air Liquide, Linde, Messer and Nippon Gases, just to name a few.”
“At the equipment end of the spectrum we heard how companies from GCE to Herose to Novair were either responding to critical product demand themselves or implementing business continuity plans. And at gasworld, we heard how TrackAbout Asia-Pacific had adapted to change in the heart of the original epicentre of the pandemic, in an exclusive interview with Cai Weiguo. I’m delighted to say that we have Cai here with us today to shed some more light on those learnings.”
For any readers unfamiliar with TrackAbout, the company is primarily involved in the cylinder business. Weiguo’s presentation this afternoon focused primarily on cylinders, supply chain optimisation and cylinder tracking. With cylinder tracking, Weiguo looked at two parts: internal and external. Internal being within a plant and external being the world of tracking cylinders after they’ve been delivered.
“Before I knew much about the industry, someone once told me this: in the cylinder business we don’t just sell gas, we rent cylinders,” Weiguo told webinar attendees. “The management of cylinders is very important because if you have no cylinders, you have no way of selling your gas. At the same time, cylinders are costly.”
“So why should we optimise our cylinder supply chain? The answer is simply in terms of the volume. Gas distributors, whether you are in Singapore or the US or any other country, they all deal with the same set of issues, whether you have 5,000 cylinders or 600,000 assets. The reason is because most cylinders today are tracked manually and you have to get the serial numbers and track them, whether you’re filling them or testing or delivering, you will have to write down the serial number at some point on a piece of paper.”
“So what has actually changed? Why now? Why during this period? A couple of things that have really fundamentally changed, and the reason why many companies do not use any tracking applications today, is because they’ve actually tried in the past. Maybe they’ve hired a developer and they failed along the way. With new technology today, everybody uses a smartphone. What does that mean for your business? It means the cost for your devices is less and secondly your operators, who are perhaps not the most sophisticated, will very easily be able to pick up these new technologies. This is a real game changer.”
What has the Covid-19 situation shown us? Weiguo listed four things:
- That we have to maintain cylinder accuracy with fewer operators;
- Technology also allows us to do contact-less deliveries;
- Temporary downtime can be used to register assets;
- Keep staff hired and emerge more efficient and competitive.
“Thanks for your insights there Cai. I asked in last week’s webinar whether this pandemic and the resulting measures have thrown a spotlight on digital technologies and industry 7.0. As a technology innovator yourself, I’d like to extend the same question to you. Do you think this crisis has highlighted the need for digitisation in our operations?” Cockerill asked.
“Yes absolutely, I think that’s very apparent to everyone. I just want to share specifically in the Singapore context, we have this new app called Trace Together and that uses Bluetooth technology. We also have this programme called Safe Entry before you enter any establishment, even if it’s a small café, and that uses QR code scanning. That’s used in this particular pandemic.”
“Right now, we’re using Skype for webinars and everybody is so dependent on it. I wouldn’t say need, that’s such a strong word, but I believe that this is a wave of change that’s happening, and it’s up to the business owners to decide whether they will be an early adopter, or they would like to see the technologies develop a bit further.”
Next, it was over to Art Anderson, who has more than 30 years of industrial gas experience, most of which was spent at Air Products.
“These days you can find Art advising on all things operational with his consulting hat on. And, if you’re a subscriber to gasworld, you’ll be familiar with his regular insights as part of our Business Series features in 2020,” Cockerill highlighted.
“Welcome to the show Art. Our theme today is clearly aligned with your areas of expertise, so tell us a bit more about optimising operations and if you think there’s any lessons learned from the last few months?”
What has the Covid-19 pandemic taught us? From a positive side, Anderson said it has reconfirmed our core competency for crisis management.
“The second thing as a takeaway was giving us a glimpse of the potential of climate change. Where I’m located here in the Northeast corridor in the US, air pollution is down significantly, around 30%. That’s the Boston area all the way down to DC. That’s a tremendous reduction, it hasn’t been that low since they’ve been measuring it,” he said.
“On the negative side, in addition to the tremendous loss of life that has impacted all of us, was the lack of preparation and anticipation by companies in a variety of different industries, not just industrial gas. You’ll be surprised, there were companies that were prepared. When you take a step back and look at what this has taught us, you take a look at companies that were able to power through this pandemic successfully.”
Anderson said he has had the opportunity to talk to several executives of companies both inside and outside the industry, and listed five takeaways:
- Effective leadership
- Robust infrastructure
- Change management
- Supply chain resiliency
He also gave a couple of thoughts/ideas on what companies could or should be doing now.
“First off if you haven’t done it already, do a ‘lessons learned’. I think that’s really important in this case because of the scope/level of change that each company has gone through. Focus on what went well and what could’ve gone better,” he said.
“Second of all, business continuity planning, you need to refresh those. You might have weather plans and you might not have had a pandemic plan, but there were some companies that did. If you had Asian operations, particularly Southeast Asian operations, you had a pandemic plan. Those were the companies able to power through this because they experienced the SARS incident over 15 years ago.”
Anderson also listed:
- Improve supply chain resiliency
- Digitisation/Data analytics
- Revisit leading indicators.
Wrapping up the webinar, Cockerill asked Anderson if he would be shocked or surprised by the number of companies in our industry that don’t have some of the systems or measures in place?
“From my perspective, on one hand the industry has done a good job of adopting some level of digital technologies, small scale. But I think what they haven’t done as much is really broaden that or increase the level of adoption,” Anderson replied.
“A good example, just a simple one, is the e-commerece space. Almost every single company in the industrial gases industry has a website. A portion of them are able to take orders on that website and Cai talked about taking them on your smartphone now. How many companies are really looking at it across their entire supply chain? Taking orders, having a flow directly to your ERP, drive logisitics scheduling, automation of deliveries and generating your invoice and ultimately getting paid by your customer, maybe electronic funds transfer.”
“On one hand there is some level of adoption, but on the other hand in terms of giving the full value of digital transformation, that’s the opportunity. Even the big guys, they’ve done it a certain degree, but it’s only on a portion of their business, or a segment. It’s an opportunity for all the industry, is really extending that more broadly across organisations.
The final instalment of gasworld’s Bandwith in Your Business series will take place next Friday (10th July) at 2.30pm BST. For more information and to register for free, click here.