In focus … Cylinder Tracking and Telemonitoring

This article, written by Rhea Healy, originally appeared in the June 2016 issue of gasworld. It is reprinted with permission.

It seems that in today’s world, the need for immediate and mobile data is now the norm, with smartphones and the internet practically essential to keep connected to the world. Any information you desire is now just one click away in most cases.

As these trends infiltrate everyday life, they do of course also extend into the industrial gas industry, where the role of ‘smart’ technology has become a staple asset in cylinder tracking and similar industrial applications, eradicating the traditional pen and paper method of a seemingly distant era.

More and more high-profile companies are implementing tracking systems with ‘smart’ features, but just how much further can this evolve and what other technological trends could possibly emerge from this point? 

David Schaer, President of Computers Unlimited (CU), highlights the importance of such systems and states, “Our experience has shown that an integrated cylinder tracking system continues to be the most cost-effective way to run an industrial gas distribution business.” This In Focus … article sets out the most recent advances in these ‘essential’ cylinder tracking (and telemonitoring) services and explores the rise of ‘smart’ technology.

Web portals

The need for immediate data has no doubt played a part in technological developments. Long gone are the days when you have to listen to the dial up tone whilst connecting to the internet, just as cylinder tracking by hand-written log sheets is now firmly outdated. With this in mind, one of the latest trends in the industry is to launch stand-alone online portals, with individual cylinder tracking accounts for easy monitoring of portable and returnable assets.

A-Gas has responded to this industry request, with the launch of its new website and mobile app designed to track a fleet of cylinders with instant and real-time data input. Free to download on smartphones and tablets, the Gas-Trak OnlineTM (GTO) portal provides key cylinder management solutions for users on the move, 24/7.

By using the new portal, operators can remotely manage their cylinder stock by logging into their personalised online account. The uses of smartphones go way beyond just being a tool to access data whilst on the road though – now its in-built camera can scan barcodes on the cylinders and automatically transfers the data into your account – which reduces cylinder number errors and further ups the ante of the cylinder tracking industry.

John Ormerod, Managing Director, explained the reasons behind the new technological offering, “For us as a cylinder supplier; cylinders are an expensive asset and it’s an extremely capital intensive business. In many cases, the contents of the cylinder cost a fraction of what the cylinder itself costs, so we really need to make sure that these assets are tracked and we know where they are. Otherwise we continuously reinvest in new cylinders when we are probably not getting full utilisation out of the ones that we have already got.”

“GTO was originally invented to help engineers in the heating and refrigeration industries track amounts of fluorinated gases. It wasn’t really a big leap to change it from tracking kilograms of gas to tracking cylinders and we quickly added the cylinder tracking functionality to the app. It’s going really well so far.”

As with other technologies in this day and age, GTO has been designed to deliver immediate data and real-time reporting, which is geared towards giving engineers the opportunity to spot problem sites as and when they arise. Ormerod affirmed this, “Smartphones and the internet have made the exchange of data  very, very easy these days. I think that’s been fundamental to how successful tracking devices have become. Technology within phones themselves, like allowing you to scan barcodes, is just fantastic. Rather than allow someone to manually type in a serial number, where you could get It wrong, scanning with a camera is quick and easy and it ensures error-free capturing of data.”

The rise of the smartphone

TrackAbout was initially designed for gas distributors by gas industry experts to incorporate advanced technology so that missing scans, data entry mistakes and misplaced invoices became things of the past. As a ‘hosted’ system, the TrackAbout network has always run on internet-based servers, with customers able to access it online, and as Internet connectivity improves around the world, more and more companies are utilising online systems without having to invest in various IT infrastructure.

When asked ‘what’s hot’ in the cylinder tracking industry right now, Doug O’Dell, Vice-President of Sales at TrackAbout, replied quite simply that, Smartphones are hot.” It is undeniable that the technological advances made in this area have accelerated technological capabilities, with O’Dell confirming, “Smartphones have lowered the cost of implementing a tracking system substantially. Now, the hardware and software capabilities of smartphones meet and often exceed those of rugged handhelds, for about a tenth of the cost.”

And it is this technology that the US corporation is focusing on, “We’re working to give users the ability to take pictures of assets using the camera on their device,” stated O’Dell.

CU is also taking advantage of the rise of smartphone technology, with Schaer, affirming, “Smartphones help reduce the overall cost of a device, whilst still providing a new platform to build out a new world of software capabilities.”

Its TIMS cylinder tracking software utilises an effective and integrated way to handle cylinder inventory in the industry: The Advanced Cylinder Management System (ACM). With its slogan, ‘total tracking means total control,’ the system gives real-time updates on cylinder location and status with Schaer highlighting,  “It’s a reflection of more than 35 years of meeting the evolving needs of the industrial gas and welding supply distributor. CU’s philosophy on cylinder tracking goes well beyond cylinder barcode tracking to include capabilities for automating and streamlining all facets of a distributor’s cylinder operations from filling, billing, and collecting.”

The system enables onsite customer site tracking via either a mobile device or web portal, and at the end of the month the system automatically generates a cylinder rental bill which is broken down by customer and department. Technological improvements to the system includes adding, “A suite of new smartphone apps and standard based web interfaces for telemonitoring solutions.”

Technological trends

Schaer said of current trends, “Lower technology costs and the stability and refinement of existing technologies and tracking solutions are a few examples behind the growth within cylinder tracking and telemonitoring systems. Also, the continued expansion of high-speed and reliable connectivity encourages advancements in taking real-time computing outside the four walls of traditional bricks-and-mortar channels.”

Kathy Hocker, Global Head of MPG Portfolio Management at Linde, echoed this thought and explained the effect that the elusive ‘cloud’ has had on tracking systems, “Cloud-based computing services is becoming imperative in cylinder tracking, as is real-time, geographically enabled monitoring,” she highlighted. “With cloud connectivity and the use of applications as standard in many mobile technologies, customers are now expecting instantaneous knowledge and real-time updates.”

“The prevalence of mobile devices and their key functionality has enabled Linde to bring smart services to customers that are easy to implement and use, meaning real-time accurate data can be at our customers’ fingertips at any time.”

Trendex, originally formed as a software development and service organisation in 1984, utilises rugged and durable tablets compatible with both barcodes and RFIDs to track a cylinder through its entire cycle and is taking existing technology one step further in the development of a linking system whereby serial numbers are stamped into the cylinder itself, corresponding to the barcode that distributors use.

Alex Mukherjee, Director of Sales and Marketing at the Canadian company, explains this system allows for “complete traceability once the cylinder is delivered,” as well as, “allowing the distributor to find the cylinder by the stamped serial number in the event that the barcode has fallen off the cylinder.”

Unimaginable advances

The beginning of this article asked where cylinder tracking systems could possibly go from here, and it seems that despite the recent advances as outlined above, technology will just keep on developing in ways that haven’t even been imagined yet.

Hocker believes that in the future, “Systems may become completely ‘touchless,’ in the communication of their product and location information, therefore further increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of a cylinder inventory management system.”

O’Dell suggested that, “The industry can benefit from a more connected supply chain. For example, as cylinders exchange hands between suppliers, distributors and end users, it’s possible to transfer their attributes from one tracking system to another, without having to re-enter all the data each time. Invariably, this will save so much time and empower distributors and end users to track their cylinders – no matter who has custody of them.”

For Mukherjee the future enabler in asset tracking is simple – GPS. “The future of tracking based applications will have to have some sort of GPS system involved,” he said. “It is the only true way to know exactly where your bottle ends up. And with technology moving at the current pace, it may only be a few years until this becomes an affordable solution.”