This article originally appeared in the June 2016 issue of gasworld. It is reprinted with permission.
TrackAbout co-founders Jim Glessner and Tim Fusco, and Vice-President of Sales, Doug O’Dell discuss the shared vision of eradicating the ‘black holes’ in the industrial gas supply chain.
Founded in 2000 by former Butler Gas Products employee Jim Glessner and software developer Tim Fusco, Pennsylvania-based TrackAbout, Inc. has become a leading authority in industrial gas asset management. The company’s software-as-a-service (SaaS) solutions to tracking, managing and maintaining gas cylinders have filled a significant gap in the market over the past 16 years and helped to put an end to the loss of invaluable data that may otherwise have slipped through the cracks.
It all began from Glessner’s own experiences in the industry, having witnessed just how much time was wasted disputing cylinder balances with customers, correcting data entry and ultimately searching for ‘lost’ cylinders. He realised that gas distributors could gain significant benefits if only they had the tools to manage their business with more efficiency. Against this backdrop, and with a technology revolution rapidly unfolding, TrackAbout was launched.
The company has continued to evolve through an active relationship with its customer base since then, which includes world-class organisations in 17 countries; but there was a time when its future did not seem so certain to be realised. Glessner explained, “Your question about our company’s inception makes me pause because it was never very certain we would ever get off the ground, let alone become a leader.”
“Sixteen years ago it was hard to find believers in cylinder tracking. We thought it was possible to serve the software from the internet to small devices like PDA’s that fit in your pocket. That was just crazy talk in the year 2000, especially after the internet bubble had just burst.”
“However, we were lucky to find some very progressive early adopters that helped us carve out the vision of a different kind of cylinder tracking. One that was free-standing, served from the internet and could be extended from our clients to their end-user customers – a system that could also connect two tracking systems together so that cylinder exchanges between trading partners would be error-free and easy.”
The brains behind that system was Fusco, a software developer introduced to a budding TrackAbout back in 1999 and a long-time family friend. “At the time, I was working as a technology consultant with Accenture and TrackAbout was just getting started by Jim Glessner. Jim’s son was my childhood friend, so I had known him for a long time,” he reflected. “After the dotcom bubble burst, Jim was looking for a way to grow the business without raising money. I offered to partner with him and build the software for a stake in the business. I thought cylinder tracking would be a simple system to build. I thought I could do it myself in six months. I was wrong on both counts.”
Since then the duo have spent over $25m and 15 years building TrackAbout and continue to invest heavily in software development every year. But the company’s story goes beyond dollars and digital investment alone; the importance of its customers’ involvement is not lost on either, with Glessner adding, “These early adopters kept hanging in there with us all along the way. The journey became possible because we were listening to our development partners and building a shared vision of the future.”
Documenting the truth
Both Glessner and Fusco demonstrate a clear passion for asset management, with Fusco describing it as ‘magical’ to see the impact that right software can have first on a business process, and then on a whole company. “I also like to think about all of the customer cylinder disputes that we have prevented over the years,” he added. “Think of all the mistrust, nasty phone calls and lost relationships that are avoided by a system that can reliably document the truth about millions of cylinders moving around every day.”
Finding the truth in the supply chain is no easy feat, with Fusco revealing some striking numbers in lost or unaccountable cylinders. This hot topic was highlighted back in 2014 when Linde Canada, for example, announced that it had ‘found’ no less than 1,900 cylinders that it had previously considered lost or stolen. Asked by gasworld what his reaction to such stories is, Fusco hinted that this could be just scratching the surface of an ongoing challenge. “Sadly, this is the norm. We have found that gas distributors that manually record ships and returns undercount the number of cylinders at customers by 5% to 25%. At the high end, this is a shocking number. Nobody at these companies would ever have believed these numbers in advance, but it is what we find as we implement tracking.”
“How does this happen? We did a study and found that 2%-3% of all manual deliveries contained a mistake. Some of these mistakes overcharge customers and some undercharge customers. Customers are likely to catch when they are overcharged and get these fixed. The mistakes that undercharge the customer, however, are never reported. By this mechanism, the mistakes that reduce cylinder balances are left in place and in aggregate, tend to undercount the number of cylinders.”
“Tracking quickly fixes this as you find customers where, for example, you thought you had 10 cylinders but now see that they have 12 serial number tracked cylinders.”
This is a challenge that Vice-President of Sales Doug O’Dell is all too familiar with, having spent his early career working for Linweld – a large distributor in Nebraska – and now standing on the verge of his 30th year in the packaged gases industry. O’Dell has a passion for asset management to match that of Glessner and Fusco and with his years spent on the other side of the fence, can testify to both the progress made in this area and the task still facing the industry.
“Having been a TrackAbout customer before joining the team, I’m intimately familiar with the challenges and benefits of implementing a tracking system,” he explained. “For many it seems an insurmountable project, but I can tell you from personal experience, as well as the experience of our current customer base, the benefits far outweigh the challenges. If employed properly, a tracking system should easily pay for itself in the first year.”
“Cylinder/asset tracking has become much more the norm rather than the exception. Distributors are embracing the benefits offered by tracking cylinders. In many cases, cylinders are a distributor’s number one asset, but the least controlled. As an industry we have a long way to go, but we have made huge strides in the past several years.”
“End-users are also realising the benefits of cylinder tracking,” he added. “With tracking, an accurate cylinder balance can be reality. As a result, many end-users are demanding their distributors utilise a serialised tracking system.”
Asked if there is a still long way to go in distributors ‘documenting the truth’ and taking a more rigorous approach to asset tracking, O’Dell alluded to the difficulties of the status quo and offered a warning that distributors don’t get stuck in the past. “I think distributors are so used to the inefficiencies that they don’t see them. Or they’ve just come to accept them as a part of doing business. So long as they’re making money, they don’t see a real reason to start tracking.”
“But as I stated earlier, cylinder tracking is becoming the norm not the exception – and many end-users are mandating tracking. Most, if not all, the global gas suppliers have implemented, or are in the process of implementing, tracking systems. In the near future, distributors without a cylinder tracking programme will find themselves at a competitive disadvantage.”
A natural extension of TrackAbout is Lockhouse, a software platform (and separate corporate entity) that essentially provides a snapshot of products from the moment they are manufactured and makes these assets smart by allowing manufacturers to exchange critical information with end-users concerning their products.
So while TrackAbout is the powerful tracking system, Lockhouse provides asset profiles, safety information and key data concerning the product itself that everyone throughout the supply chain can access and add to along the way. “TrackAbout and Lockhouse together are the way forward in asset management,” Glessner enthused. “They complement each other and serve different purposes: but together they can give a much more complete picture of products and their use cycles than one single system alone.”
“Lockhouse was born from the pain we saw in the supply chain while working at TrackAbout. Gas cylinders move through a lot of hands in their lifecycle. They pass from manufacturer to distributors to customers to re-testers and to inspectors. Each of these parties has their own separate database with information about that cylinder, and so we saw key information being lost along the way; and information lost is money lost.”
“So Lockhouse was developed as a way for an asset to retain its critical product information throughout the supply chain. The added features of Lockhouse – product and end user analytics, tools for engaging with and motivating product users – have allowed Lockhouse to expand its original vision from connecting separate data silos into a more robust system for managing the unique identity of each product along its lifecycle, as well as a new window into how the product is being used outside of a traditional tracking system.”
He continued, “This interaction users have with the asset’s profile itself allows companies to gain insight into how their products are being used and what information is being demanded at the use point, which before was often a black hole: outside a company’s tracking system. In today’s world, companies must co-exist in a supply chain that is efficient and responsive from beginning to end in order to survive, and Lockhouse was created to help them do that.”
Chart Industries is one of the early adopters and indeed development partners in the Lockhouse system, announcing a tie-up with the company in December 2014 and its shared vision in the future of asset management. gasworld understands that there are further highprofile partners looming large on the horizon for Lockhouse, with two industry investors set to become customers and a ‘score of interested parties’ in the pipeline. “Just like TrackAbout in the early days, it takes early adopters to see and shape the vision of what is to come,”Glessner added.
Underpinning much of TrackAbout’s present day asset tracking capabilities is the smartphone, the device that almost all of us would not now be without. Our phones and devices have changed – and continue to change – the way we live and work, and the same can undoubtedly be said of the asset management sector.
Transitioning its asset tracking technologies to the smartphone has been a big challenge for TrackAbout and Fusco notes that everyday its customers scan 200,000 assets, with the emphasis on ensuring that every one of those transactions happens correctly and quickly. “We have a large and sophisticated system and must be very careful to not break what is already working for our existing customers,” he underlined.
The reward is, however, enormous and TrackAbout sees the smartphone changing the game in asset tracking. “We all now have a super computer in our pocket,” Fusco said. “Combine this with good internet connectivity and amazing sensors and you have a very powerful tool … We even have one customer who now expects their employees to come to work with a modern smartphone; it is part of their personally provided work gear, like showing up with work boots.”
The benefits of smartphone-based asset management systems include cameras capable of doubling up as effective barcode scanners, high quality voice-to-text dictation, large full-colour screens offering rich information as well as capturing customer signatures, and the ability to capture GPS coordinates with every action. Indeed, Fusco articulated, “Before we knew what happened and when, now we also know where.”
The smartphone could also hold the key to achieving ‘the dream’ in industrial gas asset management – the day whereby it is possible to track every cylinder in circulation. Glessner enthused, “Absolutely, and the reason I am certain about this is that someday everyone in the world will own a smartphone and every manufactured product will need to have a unique identity.”
“We just have to give everyone the reasons and rewards to care about connecting the asset to its useful information and purpose. And obviously the reasons to care are safety, sustainability and profit; but also that this instant information about products is what customers all along the supply chain now expect and demand from any company who wishes to stay in business.”
So what’s next on the agenda for TrackAbout, as one of the leading proponents in achieving this objective? O’Dell affirms that ‘without question’ there is still much more to be achieved in the field, especially as technology advances and broadens the capabilities of what is possible.
The company is currently updating the user interface of its website to bring it more in line with the modern look of the best web applications that its customers might use, like Google or Airbnb, while it also has a number of other projects ongoing. Fusco wrapped up our interview and concluded, “The upcoming projects I am most excited about are 1) allowing users to take pictures of assets using the camera on their device and 2) a tool to let customers design and build their own data collection workflows for both our rugged application and for smartphones. This is a lot like letting customers ‘drag and drop’ to build their own mobile applications within TrackAbout.”
“The future for TrackAbout is both going deeper into our customers’ work processes, as well as finding ways to break down the barriers across companies. We are now providing tracking systems to our customers’ customers to provide a ‘single view of the truth’ across companies. This is a great path forward for us, for our customers, and for the industry as a whole.”