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National Welders Growth Prompts New Additions to Cryogenic Fleet

National Welders, a North Carolina cryogenic gases manufacturer and distributor, has doubled in growth every five of the past 10 years, says Ralph N Hamilton, distribution general manager. Keeping up with growth has meant continuous fleet acquisition for the business headquartered in Charlotte.

The latest additions, two 8,637-gallon insulated aluminum trailers purchased from Cryenco Inc and three Volvo tractors leased from Ruan Leasing Inc, joined the fleet in December.

New vehicles were chosen to meet the company's general growth and the increasing demand for working with 400-450 psi at some customer loading stations.

"Having Drum hydraulic drive systems mounted on tractors, a new adaptation for National Welders, gives us that extra edge to handle higher pressures," Hamilton says. "Many loading racks in the cryogenic industry now have higher pressure requirements, and more are expected to make the move in the future. We are currently training our drivers on the new trailers."

Another National Welders equipment upgrade is the installation of XATA management systems on all transport vehicles. Equipment includes onboard computers that monitor miles and hours traveled and fueling stops. Drivers receive route assignments without having to leave the cab. Data entered by drivers takes into account the amount of product picked up and delivered. Computers in the payroll department automatically calculate driver hours, calculate the wages, and print checks - all from data provided through the XATA system.

"It's going to be an excellent system for us," says Hamilton. "There will be no more paper logs. Information is entered just once and flows to the person administering the data. We are also investigating integrating satellite tracking software for a later time."

New Trailers New trailers and tractors join the current fleet of 32 tank trailers and 27 tractors that distribute oxygen, hydrogen, helium, nitrogen, nitrous oxide, carbon dioxide, argon, and various other gases in North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Georgia, and Tennessee.

Although the company now operates across a broad section of the southeastern United States, it started in Charlotte in 1941 when JA Turner Jr founded a small welding supply business out of the trunk of his car. Today, with sales revenue of about $135 million, National Welders can boast of being the largest independently owned industrial gas manufacturer and welding supply distributor in the United States. In 1998, the company entered into a joint venture with Air Gas Inc.

The company is led by Erroll C Sult, chief executive officer, and Richard A Lake, president. "We are very proud of our growth during the past years," says Sult. "However, we are even more proud of the relationship we have developed with our customers by providing them with the best service possible."

To meet the needs of customers, the company operates three air separation plants: two in Gaston, South Carolina, near Columbia, and one in Hopewell, Virginia.

Together, the plants produce 660 tons of total liquid product per day. About 80% of the production is used by the company for its own customers. The rest is sold to competitors. Product is tested for purity before and after every trailer is loaded.

Facilities supply cryogenic and bulk gases for military and commercial aviation, high tech manufacturing companies, and the welding and medical industries. Medical gases are produced under exacting conditions that assure purity complies with federal standards.

The Columbia plant is constantly being upgraded. "We added a second air separation plant in 1996. We have to stay current with technological advances in order to compete in this industry," says Hamilton.

Part of the investment was applied to automated loading racks used to prevent product spills. When the trailer is parked on the scale at the rack, an arm comes down in front of the tractor, which will not lift until the loading equipment has been properly disconnected. Drivers hook up the hoses and then enter the vehicle number into a computerized system to receive a weight ticket.

State-of-the-art equipment also is used in Durham, North Carolina, where the company's gas division mixes exotic gases for technical applications. Product is used in research, testing, and instrument calibration. In Charlotte, acetylene is manufactured for welding applications.

In conjunction with its manufacturing operations, the company operates eight divisions with 48 service centers and serves about 40,000 customers.

Historically, National Welders has owned its own tank truck fleet. However, with increased growth and changing customer demands, managers are gradually opting for leased vehicles with maintenance contracts.

"Ruan takes care of the tractors, running gear on trailers, and performs inspections," says Hamilton. "Our seven mechanics in Charlotte tend to routine vessel service, but we send major tank repairs to an outside vendor, Cryogenic Tank Restoration, in Rock Hill, South Carolina."

Every three months, Ruan checks trailer lights, brakes, crossmembers, and vessels. A steam cleaning system is used for exterior washing.

Most tank trailers in National Welders' fleet were built by Lox Equipment Co and range in capacity from 5,000 to 8,500 gallons. Product transfer equipment includes PTO-driven Paul pumps and Cosmodyne pumps powered by Volkswagen diesel motors. The pumps and motors are mounted on the trailers. External valves are manufactured by Powell and Goddard. Hoffer flow meters are standard on all trailers.

A RegO automatic valve system reduces loading pressures of 25-38 psi to an on-road pressure of 17 psi. If product is carried on the road at a psi of 25.3 or more, hazardous materials regulations have to be met, says Hamilton.

Some tank interiors are constructed with stainless steel and are for multiservice use. "Although we have capability to change products among stainless trailers, we rarely do," he says, citing factors such as product and fittings compatibility. Aluminum trailers are dedicated to argon and nitrogen.

The new trailers from Cryenco have Goddard, TBV, RegO, Powell, ITT, Hoke, and Rockwood-Swendeman valves. Other hardware includes NUPRO valve needles, Hastings thermocouples, IM Cash road relief regulators, AMETEK vessel pressure gauges, and Barton liquid level gauges. Flow meters are from Hoffer.

Cryenco supplied o-rings, fill and drain strainers, and PB coils.

The trailers have WABCO brakes, Hendrickson-Turner air ride suspension, Rockwell axles, and an Austin Westran landing gear. Wiring and lighting are from Betts. National Welders specifies Goodyear tires.

Vehicle sides are marked with wide bands of green and yellow reflective tape. "They light up like a Christmas tree at night, especially if it is raining," says Hamilton. "We feel the $1,000 installation cost per unit was well worth the improved visibility and safety it brings."

Air Ride "Trailers are specified for air ride suspensions. We think this seems to preserve equipment," he says. "And, they have three baffles inside to offset forward and backward motion."

Newest Volvo tractors have Cummins 370-435 horsepower Cummins engines and 10- speed Eaton transmissions. Front axle and drive tandem are from Rockwell.

Few transports are used for jobs other than over the road, which calls for tractors with "enough beef to get over hills without having to change gears," Hamilton says. Having learned to drive tractors and experiencing loading and unloading, Hamilton ordered power units with driver comfort in mind. Tractors have power steering, power windows, comfortable seats, and more horsepower.

"Our drivers deserve good equipment," he says. "They are capable, dependable, neat, dress well, and are loyal. Some can drive all our vehicles."

Tractors that travel more than 125,000 miles per year are checked and fuel filters changed every 20,000 miles, says Albert Burns, Ruan service manager at Columbia. At 40,000 miles, service includes oil and fuel filter changes. For tractors that travel less than 125,000 miles per year, maintenance service is performed once every three months or at 25,000 miles, whichever comes first.

Driver Pool Thirty-five drivers make up the pool. They receive orders from the company's one dispatcher via voice mail and are required to call in each morning.

Veteran drivers oversee new hires in the on-road section of the six-week training program conducted by the company. The program emphasizes physical properties that make up cryogenic gases and lists precautions required for handling products. New Federal Drug Administration rules mandate additional driver training for handling oxygen used in the medical sector, Hamilton says.

"Our services include an absolute insistence on the purity of our product, constant demand for safety, and 24-hour-a-day delivery," he says. "Driver training is an essential factor in seeing that our goals are met."

To demonstrate company emphasis on safety, bonuses based on accident-free records are awarded quarterly and annually, $50 and $200, respectively.

The emphasis on safety and state-of-the-art equipment is expected to continue as the company grows. "Every year our revenue has grown, compared to the previous year," Lake says. "We are growing both our existing business and through strategic acquisition of distributor welding gas business. In addition, we have received ISO certification at our specialty gas plant and our Calhoun County air separation plant. We have plans to continue to invest money in equipment, manufacturing facilities, and our fleet."

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