The attempted Russian invasion of Ukraine has had a major impact on the global supply of rare and specialty gases, causing concerns over the specialty gas supply chain from production and sourcing to distribution and supply.
Joining gasworld to discuss not only the challenges faced by the industry, but also the opportunities, was Matt Adams, Executive Vice President at Electronic Fluorocarbons (EFC), and specialty gas expert Kevin Klotz, from webinar sponsor Weldcoa.
Revealing how international events are affecting the electronic gases and materials sector, Adams stated that there is a tremendous stress on the supply chain with long lead times affecting its customers.
“We’re also seeing increased air freight and overall logistics cost; this is of course exacerbated by Covid lockdowns in China as well as consequences from the Russia-Ukraine conflict.”
Ukraine is the world’s largest supplier of noble gases, including krypton, neon, and xenon.
With supply chain disruptions causing issues for the specialty gas industry, customers are also facing other concerns.
“Challenges around technology development, and developing the latest chipsets, those are other challenges that our customers are seeing.
”Those challenges are also creating opportunities.”
He added that other challenges are based on their own corporate sustainability requirements and ‘go green’ initiatives.
“Those challenges are also creating opportunities.”
To lower the company’s carbon footprint, EFC is currently developing an R&D lab at its facility in Hatfield, Pennsylvania.
By developing new products that are ‘much more’ environmentally friendly than current materials, EFC is advancing its drive towards a more sustainable manufacturing process.
“We’re developing new products there that are much more environmentally friendly than current materials,” commented Adams.
“For some of the materials that can potentially be very nasty greenhouse gases, we are looking to develop drop-in replacements for those materials for semiconductor manufacturing and other high tech manufacturing.”
Outlook for specialty gases
Asked to elaborate on how industry can adapt to such unprecedented global events, Adams explained, “We’re seeing tremendous growth opportunities in our industry.”
“We’ve all seen headlines about the investment domestically in our country to support tech manufacturing, aerospace development, automotive manufacturing, food production… those investments will certainly help all of us.”
The company has invested in world class analytical technology to generate the data capable of helping its customer base solve technological challenges, in addition to boosting its status as a solutions provider by investing in hiring practices.
“We’ve also invested in the best people in the industry to executive on our vision, which is really to not be a gas company, but a solutions provider.”
Equipped with a strong background in specialty gas and developing markets within the industry, Klotz has spent over a decade working with emerging industries which utilise gas or cryogenics in their applications.
“We’ve seen huge supply chain issues arising, raw material costs, and I don’t think anybody’s been unaffected by that from equipment manufacturers to end users,” began Klotz.
“We’ve found that our customers now are just demanding perfection all the time, they don’t have any room for error because it completely wipes out a profit, so in a market that was already moving towards automation and repeatability, we’ve seen an even larger push in that direction recently.”
A key issue seen by the company has been the US labour shortage caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, in addition to older, more experienced individuals leaving the industry and new, younger staff coming in.
“With that, a lot of the industry experience is going out the door as well,” revealed Klotz. “Finding a way to bridge that gap and make sure that nothing gets lost in translation has been a huge challenge that I’ve noticed.”
By increasing its focus on automation, Weldcoa is attempting to make an impact within the industry.
“Something that we’ve been trying to work on is automating withint he specialty gas industry and developing products that really make sense for these new and emerging markets.”
Room for improvement?
When asked if there is still space for improvement in the company’s instruments, Klotz revealed that Weldcoa is currently working on an automated filling system for specialty gas filling.
“We call it the Auto Blend cell. And what this started as was just a manual filled panel for doing specialty gas blending of gravimetric mixtures, anything from rare gases to hydrocarbons to emissions monitoring gases,” he said.
“The product has evolved with a need for repeatability and accuracy that can’t always be provided with a manual system.”
The company has incorporated a certain amount of automation to improve the product.
“I don’t think it’s ever going to slow down…”
“We’re constantly trying to look for new ways to just shave off tenths of a percent of accuracy and things that would oftentimes be overlooked.”
By working with its end users systems, the company has seen an increased need for new equipment that might noe currently exist, creating an opportunity in the market.
“We’ve been working with a lot of major companies on developing everything from large specialty gas operations that are filling into tube trailers down to disposable cylinder filling, and liquid hydrocarbon blends for the pipeline oil industry,” said Klotz.
He added that, over the past five years, he has seen a huge trend in automation of analysing gas mixutres as opposed to having a manual system.
“I don’t think it’s ever going to slow down, there’s always going to be room for growth.”
Adjusting to a volatile market
In the US over the next several years, the country is expecting about an 8.8% increase in specialty gas demand, according to Klotz.
“With that increase and factoring in the labour shortage that we’ve been dealing with, we recently had some customers that we’ve been working with from overseas, so they echo and reverberate those exact same labour shortage issues.”
He added that with new industries popping up and requiring a lot from its customers, an increased focus will have to be placed on automation.
“I think that we’re going to be working with automation and trying to make sure that nothing goes to waste.”
“We work with a lot of supercritical CO2 systems, and I’ve been hearing from end users that what typically was not an issue of getting product, a lot of customers are now allocation for even their CO2.”
“By making sure that nothing goes to waste in the industry, we’re able to use every single bits of the resource that we have around us.”
The full webinar is available to watch on-demand at www.gasworld.tv.