To address the challenges of their complex supply chains, operators of gas cylinders have adopted management solutions and embraced digital services, leveraging wireless technologies like RFID.
Industries Managing Large Inventories of Gas Cylinders
Gas cylinders, bottles, containers, tanks, kegs, etc are the returnable packaging and transport assets of choice for a wide range of applications across various industries and sectors:
- Energy – Gas cylinders are utilized in energy and utility sectors for the distribution of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), where the cylinders contain propane and butane used for residential and commercial cooking, heating, and fuel purposes.
- Industry – Gas cylinders are commonly used in industrial and manufacturing processes for various purposes, such as:
- Welding and cutting: Gas cylinders provide gases like oxygen, acetylene, and argon for welding and cutting operations.
- Industrial heating: Gas cylinders supply gases such as propane and natural gas for industrial heating applications.
- Chemical processes: Gas cylinders may contain gases used in chemical reactions or as feedstock for manufacturing processes.
- Healthcare – Gas cylinders play a critical role in the healthcare and medical sector for:
- Medical gases: Cylinders store gases like oxygen, nitrous oxide, and medical-grade air used in hospitals, clinics, and emergency services.
- Anesthesia: Gases like nitrous oxide and medical-grade oxygen are used in anesthesia administration during surgical procedures.
- Food – Gas cylinders find applications in the food and beverage industry for:
- Carbonation: Cylinders provide carbon dioxide (CO2) for carbonating beverages like soft drinks and beer.
- Food packaging: Gases like nitrogen (N2) and carbon dioxide (CO2) are used to preserve food quality and extend shelf life in packaging.
The usage of gas cylinders extends to numerous other sectors and applications based on the specific gas requirements of different industries, e.g. refrigerants used in air conditioning and refrigeration systems (FGAS Compliance), oxygen for aircraft, or portable fire extinguishers.
Challenges for Gas Cylinder Operators
How to optimize holdings? How to gain insights into usage and rotation patterns? How to track down “lost cylinders”? These are crucial considerations for gas cylinder operators aiming to reduce inventory shrinkage and improve efficiency. Meeting these challenges necessitates the implementation of sophisticated inventory management systems, robust logistics capabilities, a strong commitment to safety and compliance, and sound financial management practices.
One of the most significant challenges is ensuring an accurate and up-to-date inventory of cylinders, which can be difficult to track given their large numbers, frequent movements, and varying states of fullness.
Gas cylinder operators must also manage logistics and transportation of cylinders, ensuring that they are safely and efficiently transported to and from customers, often across long distances.
Safety is another critical challenge, as gas cylinders can be hazardous and require careful handling to prevent accidents and leaks. Operators must ensure that cylinders are stored and transported safely, and that they are properly inspected and maintained to prevent leaks or other safety hazards.
Compliance with regulatory requirements is also a significant challenge, as operators must adhere to various local, state, and federal regulations related to the storage, transportation, and handling of gas cylinders.
Finally, operators must also manage the financial aspects of their business, including pricing, billing, and collections. This can be especially challenging given the complex pricing structures and billing methods used in the gas cylinder industry, as well as the need to manage cash flow and collections in a timely and efficient manner.
Lifecycle of a Gas Cylinder
Most gas cylinder manufacturers design their cylinders to last for around 15 to 25 years. However, the actual lifespan of a cylinder can vary depending on factors such as:
- The type of gas: Some gases, such as hydrogen, can cause materials to become brittle over time, which may shorten the life of a cylinder.
- The material the cylinder is made of: Steel cylinders are generally more durable than aluminum cylinders.
- The lifecycle of the gas cylinder: Cylinders that are exposed to harsh environments, such as extreme temperatures or corrosive substances, may degrade more quickly.
The typical lifecycle of a gas cylinder can be broken down into eight stages:
- Manufacturing – Gas cylinders are typically made from steel or aluminum and are manufactured in specialized facilities.
- Filling – The cylinders are filled with various gases, such as oxygen, acetylene, or propane, either by the manufacturer or by specialized filling companies.
- Storage – Filled cylinders are stored in specialized facilities, such as warehouses or outdoor storage yards, until they are ready for distribution.
- Distribution – Cylinders are transported to customers using specialized vehicles, such as trucks or trailers. For example, medical oxygen cylinders may be transported to hospitals or clinics, while propane cylinders may be transported to gas stations or hardware stores.
- Use – The cylinders are used by customers for various applications, such as welding, heating, or cooking. For example, a propane cylinder may be used to power a backyard grill, while an oxygen cylinder may be used during surgery.
- Refilling – When the gas in the cylinder is depleted, it may be returned to the filling company for refilling. For example, a propane cylinder may be refilled at a gas station, while a medical oxygen cylinder may be refilled at a specialized filling facility.
- Inspection and maintenance – Cylinders must be regularly inspected and maintained to ensure they are safe for use. For example, cylinders may be inspected for signs of corrosion or damage, and valves may be replaced as needed. This includes visual inspections, pressure testing, and other tests as required by regulatory standards. Cylinders that fail these tests must be removed from service and either repaired or retired.
- Retirement – When cylinders reach the end of their useful life, they may be retired and recycled or disposed of. For example, steel cylinders may be recycled to make new steel products, while aluminum cylinders may be melted down and reused.
Examples of Gas Cylinders Inventory Control Systems
Several prominent gas cylinder operators have implemented digital inventory management solutions utilizing various technologies, including:
- Praxair (part of Linde): Praxair implemented RFID-based inventory management systems to track and monitor their gas cylinders. RFID tags are attached to cylinders, allowing for automated tracking and real-time visibility of inventory levels.
- Air Liquide: Air Liquide has utilized barcode scanning technology in their inventory management systems. Barcodes are affixed to cylinders, and handheld scanners are used to track and manage the inventory accurately. The company has also developed a connected IOT-ready gas cylinder.
- Air Products: Air Products has implemented a cloud-based inventory management system that utilizes wireless communication technologies. This allows for real-time tracking, monitoring, and management of gas cylinder inventory across multiple locations.
- Matheson Tri-Gas: Matheson Tri-Gas has implemented a combination of technologies, including RFID and GPS tracking systems, to optimize their gas cylinder inventory management. RFID tags enable precise tracking, while GPS technology helps monitor and manage the cylinders’ location during transportation.
Selecting The Right Technology For Gas Cylinder Tracking
The specific tracking technologies and systems used may vary across different operators based on their specific requirements and preferences. Some of the most common tracking solutions include:
- Manual methods: This involves using pen and paper or spreadsheets to track cylinder inventory and movements. While this method is simple and inexpensive, it is prone to errors and can be time-consuming.
- Barcode scanning: This involves using barcodes attached to cylinders that are scanned using handheld scanners. The scanned data is then entered into a database for tracking and inventory management. This method is more accurate and efficient than manual methods but may still require manual data entry and can be prone to errors.
- RFID (Radio Frequency Identification): This involves attaching RFID tags to cylinders and using RFID readers to automatically track their movements and inventory. This method is highly accurate and efficient and can provide real-time data on cylinder location and status. The technology sees an RFID chip associated with the cylinder’s serial number, which allows for knowing its location and history. The customer can then access all the information in the cloud, such as safety data, content, cylinder, batch, release number, etc.
- GPS (Global Positioning System): This involves using GPS technology to track the location of cylinders in real time. This method is useful for tracking cylinders during transportation but may not be as accurate for tracking cylinders in storage. The active technology requires a battery that increases the size of the GPS tracker and requires regular maintenance in the field.
Overall, the most effective solution will depend on the specific needs and requirements of the gas cylinder operator. For example, a smaller operator may be able to manage inventory using manual methods or barcode scanning, while a larger operator with a high volume of cylinders may require more advanced technology such as RFID or cloud-based software.
10 Key Considerations for Gas Cylinder Inventory
- Inventory: How many cylinders are in your operations? Are you tracking cylinders of similar sizes and shapes or a mix of different types? Do you have covered cylinders?
- ATEX: Passive technologies like Barcodes and passive RFID are ATEX-compliant and safe to use in explosive environments. However, active technologies such as GPS that rely on batteries are not considered intrinsically safe.
- Unique ID: You can use the EPC Global Standard supported by RAIN RFID technology to assign a unique identification number to each cylinder. This ID can be encoded into a chip and laser etched onto a tag.
- Costs: You have the option to choose standardized off-the-shelf solutions or fully bespoke systems, depending on your needs. Consider building on existing infrastructure for future scalability and cost-effectiveness.
- Retrofitting: Implement scalable and durable methods for retrofitting cylinders in the field. This can be done during the cylinder filling procedure, ensuring a fast and efficient process.
- Durability: Use industry-grade adhesives, epoxy, welding, mechanical methods, or zip ties to securely attach Barcodes or RFID tags. These tagging methods have been field-proven to withstand handling shocks, washdowns, sanding, and other aggressive processes.
- Lifecycle: Determine when and how to track the gas cylinders. Choose between bulk read options like gates/portals for vehicles passing through or spot checks using handheld readers / scanners. Consider the optimal reading angle and distance, whether from the top or side of the cylinder.
- Automation: Implement tracking systems that minimize impact on productivity and reduce human error rates. Hardwired tracking features can ensure seamless and accurate data collection.
- Cloud: Utilize cloud-based software platforms that enable remote inventory management, movement tracking, and report generation. This approach offers high efficiency and real-time data access, but it relies on a stable internet connection.
- Consumer: Leverage NFC (Near Field Communication), a type of RFID frequency available on smartphones, for field tracking of cylinders. This technology can provide additional convenience and accessibility.
Which RFID frequency is best for a gas cylinder tracking system?
First-generation RFID systems rely on passive, low-frequency (LF) transponders as they perform exceptionally well around metal objects. However, LF tags typically require close proximity to the transponder, usually within 3 feet, to read the information accurately. LF tags and readers also tend to be more expensive.
On the other hand, ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) transponders are a de facto RFID tracking standard in many industrial applications. Tags and readers are readily available across various price points and durability. Some UHF RFID tags have been specifically designed to operate effectively around metal, offering longer read ranges of around 20 feet. This makes them a safer option for new gas cylinder tracking systems.
Can NFC be used for field tracking of cylinders?
Yes, NFC (Near Field Communication), a type of RFID frequency available on smartphones, can be leveraged for field tracking of cylinders.
This technology allows for additional convenience and accessibility in tracking cylinders, providing the customer with access to all relevant information in the cloud, such as safety data, content, cylinder details, batch information, release numbers, and more.
What types of RFID readers can be used for gas cylinder tracking systems?
Various types of RFID readers can be purchased for gas cylinder tracking systems. These include both fixed readers and handheld readers, allowing flexibility in the tracking process.
By using either of these systems, the information can be accurately captured and then seamlessly integrated into an RFID asset-tracking system. This integration enables efficient tracking and management of gas cylinders throughout their lifecycle.
How can passive UHF transponders be used for gas cylinder tracking?
Special ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) transponders designed to work around metal can be utilized effectively for gas cylinder tracking. These transponders are commonly employed by businesses looking to overcome the limitations associated with passive, low-frequency (LF) tags.
Gas cylinders are often made of metal, which can interfere with the functionality of LF tags. However, UHF transponders excel in such environments, providing an ideal solution. Due to their design, these transponders can perform reliably even when near metal objects, ensuring accurate tracking of gas cylinders.
One of the key advantages of UHF transponders is their extended read range. While LF tags require close proximity to the reader (within approximately 3 feet), UHF transponders offer a much longer range of around 20 feet. This increased distance allows for more efficient and convenient scanning of multiple cylinders at once, saving time and effort.
The implementation of UHF transponders for gas cylinder tracking provides businesses with the ability to collect essential data at greater distances. These transponders enable reliable and accurate identification, allowing for efficient inventory management and tracking of gas cylinders across various locations.
Xerafy is a pioneer in RFID for industrial applications, bringing to market several innovations that enable advanced identification and automation capabilities.
In addition to a complete range of field-proven RFID tags available off-the-shelf, Xerafy offers Custom RFID Tags services, covering everything from a personalization service bureau to custom-design engineering capabilities.