Automation Keeps WestAir on Top of Biotech Market.
Recent years have seen U.S. based WestAir Gases & Equipment invest mightily in new technology to fulfill its mission of providing quality products and exceptional service to their customers.
The primary end-use market driving WestAir’s efforts is Southern California’s wildly active biotech industry. For years the firm served that market from its facility in El Cajon, CA. Primary products include liquid nitrogen and UHP helium and nitrogen, as well as argon and other spec gases. But by the early 2000s WestAir had outgrown that facility and clearly needed to upgrade. “The El Cajon plant was operating 10 to 12 hours/day to keep up with production, giving us little to no chance of continuing to grow with the market,” said Romesberg. “When we decided to upgrade our capabilities, we looked for technology that would allow us to double our production.”
National City Facility: Automation Double Filling Capacity
In 2007 WestAir opened their facility in National City, CA, featuring a Weldcoa palletized, automated filling system designed specifically for the biotech market, according to plant supervisor Dave Messina. “Our customers, particularly those in the biotech sector, are running leaner than ever before. If they run out of gas, they need new supplies immediately. Their needs are urgent, with little time to waste, and that type of business model creates opportunities for companies like ours.”
The computerized fill station specified, designed and installed at National City by Weldcoa features a five-head filling station (oxygen, nitrogen, argon, helium and mixtures of those, including CO2 mixes). The facility also fills medical oxygen includes a five-position liquid-nitrogen fill station, two liquid-oxygen fill stations, two liquid-argon fill stations, a medical-CO2 nitrous vent-to-vacuum area and more. “We doubled output capacity,” says Messina, noting that in some cases one operator can fill in an 8 hour shift what three operators used to fill in a 10 hour shift. Those gained man-hours have been shifted from filing to cylinder sorting.
“We've grown tremendously on the back of the new Weldcoa fill plant. We're sorting twice what we were sorting in El Cajon.”
Dave Messina, Plant Supervisor for WestAir Gases & Equipment
Automation allows one operator to run the five fill heads simultaneously. “He connects the cylinders to the pigtails, opens the valves, punches in the job information into the touchscreen control panel to call up the program (what we’re filling, how many cylinders we’re filling and the grade) and he’s done. The computer controls the vent cycle, vacuum cycle and fill cycle automatically—no operator involvement.”
Of course, it’s not only the process automation and labor savings WestAir appreciates with its Weldcoa technology investment. “There’s definitely product savings, too,” says Messina. “El Cajon had old tanks with high losses. We moved here with a new system, new siphon tanks, so there’s definitely been a return on the liquids and all of the gases filled on the island (filled to scale rather than filled to vent) are consistent down to the gram level.
Soaring Customer Satisfaction
“Customers definitely appreciate the repeatability of our processes and the high quality product we provide,” said Messina. Austin Romesberg, VP Operations-South sums it all up very well. “With Weldcoa’s automated setup, that variability is completely removed. We get consistent product down to the gram level. And in the challenging biotech market, that’s critical.”
“The fill island almost matches the quality of the mixes in our lab. Customers are extremely confident in the product we supply. That's another benefit of automation.”
Dave Messina, Plant Supervisor for WestAir Gases & Equipment
Anaheim Facility: Repeat Success
Enamored with Weldcoa’s performance in National City, WestAir didn’t hesitate to enlist its services the next go around, this time (in 2010) asking Weldcoa to outfit a fill plant in a brand new building in Anaheim. It includes all of the capabilities that the National City location does, with the addition to a more complete spec-gas filling facility, including flammable and inert blend cells and a 12-cylinder capacity bake-out oven.
“The facility also houses a research-grade helium purifier,” adds Pat Dalton, who helped get the Anaheim facility up and running and until recently served as its operations manager. “We expect to be able to leverage our research- helium production and the bake-out oven to expand our reach into LA’s growing spec-gas market,” notes Dalton. “So the lab is high end, everything is state of the art. And when it comes to keeping all of this high-end critical equipment up and running, so we don’t miss a beat with our customers, Weldcoa’s tech support is unmatched. Their people are highly skilled and competent, and function as additions to our own technical team.”
“When we looked at Weldcoa’s system and compared it to others in the market,” Dalton adds, “we all found it to be extremely impressive, in particular the ability to provide service using remote diagnostics. Their technicians can receive instant notification of any messages from the equipment and access our control systems to diagnose and address issues. Downtime is practically eliminated, and the customers don’t experience any delays. While these instances are few and far between the ability to address them quickly and flawlessly sets Weldcoa apart from the others.”
"Our company was founded on solving customer challenges through dedication to continuous improvement. With the Weldcoa equipment and systems now in place in National City and in Anaheim, that entire part of our overall operation runs with little to no attention from management. That’s made possible due to the reliability and repeatability of the process, and allows us to spend our time and energy developing other processes and procedures within the company.”
Austin Romesberg, VP of Operations for WestAir Gases & Equipment, Inc.