AmeriGas, the nation’s largest propane company, serves millions and millions of customers across all 50 states. Residential, industrial and commercial customers count on AmeriGas propane for heating, cooking, motor fuel, and other essentials.
At the AmeriGas Propane Exchange plant in Conroe, Texas, the refurbishing and filling of over a million propane exchange cylinders was a business that grew up overnight. Typical of that rapid growth was a very labor-intensive process that required a lot of manpower touches. Heavy cylinders were physically forced through a manual sorting, refurbishing and filling process with a few semi-automated stations. This process wasted time, taxed workers and raised many ergonomic and safety concerns.
The Avanceon Solution
By introducing an integrated and automated work center concept, Avanceon’s team devised a solution that both reduced safety issues and significantly diminished ergonomic issues while doubling productivity, all with less than half the staff. Avanceon’s streamlined automated system reduced the manufacturing floor footprint by 50% while allowing the plant to double its capacity, with less handling and operator “touches” at each step.
Work began in 2012, with Avanceon engineers studying cylinder-processing lines at several AmeriGas locations. The team used this data to create five custom “work cells” where operators complete multiple cylinder-reconditioning tasks per touch. Each cell incorporated safety upgrades such as leak detection, gas and motion sensors.
The previous lines necessitated up to 30 touches per cylinder, each presenting a safety hazard and the potential for error. Avanceon’s new system requires an operator touch only if the system detects and rejects a leaky or scrap cylinder.
Avanceon’s state-of-the-art automated lines eliminated manual cylinder sorting at the beginning of the cylinder exchange process. An automated gantry work center removes the dividers and delivers them back to palletizing. Then the cylinders are depalletized and shuttled into the plant.
After an automated system tests each cylinder for leaks, cylinders travel down a conveyor where defective cylinders are diverted while the rest are inspected for attached regulators and old-style valves. Cylinders then travel on the conveyor to the first work cell. This work cell uses an Avanceon developed hands-free process for debris removal. The cylinders are brushed, pressure-washed and dried before being visually inspected. High-speed cameras check each cylinder’s body, ring, collar and valves for compliance. Cylinders continue through the process or are diverted to rework or scrap; a tedious manual inspection is no longer needed. Avanceon’s innovative work center requires only one operator for this task; the old process involved up to ten.
Cylinders destined for scrap or in need of a valve replacement are conveyed outside the plant and then transferred to another department. Satisfactory cylinders continue to another touch-free cell, where they are automatically picked up, preheated, painted, quick dried and released. A single operator monitors the operation and selects the level of painting required for each cylinder. Avanceon’s innovative work center eliminated the need for workers to hang each weighty cylinder on an overhead conveyor hook and risk injury or cylinder damage. Avanceon’s proprietary process prevents wet cylinders from causing downstream malfunction, premature rusting and stuck sleeves.
These freshly painted dry cylinders next arrive at a work cell where an operator records their weight before sending them on to the automated cylinder-filing carousel. The filled cylinders are conveyed to the finishing work center. The cylinders are again checked for leaks before being sleeved and a date code/location label applied.
The same automated gantry work center that depalletized the cylinders now groups them for automated palletizing and creates a four-level pallet with plastic dividers. These pallets are shuttled to a fork truck operator who loads the same truck, that delivered the cylinders, for shipment back to a distribution center.
From design to implementation and support, Avanceon collaborated with AmeriGas to create a customized solution that was vetted every step of the way by an AmeriGas process owner team. An agile execution approach was used to gain staff buy-in regarding the look and feel of the system while cutting the normal schedule in half. Our specialists brought their expertise to every aspect of the project, including site planning, building design, line layout, equipment selection, machine design, controls, instrumentation, integration and reporting. This large-scale success demonstrates how the Avanceon team’s holistic and innovative approach can help any customer overcome multiple interrelated and complex challenges.
AmeriGas and Avanceon’s teamwork resulted in the capacity to produce three million cylinders annually at a world-class 80% operational equipment effectiveness rate with less than 50% of previous staffing. The cylinders themselves are of a higher quality and have a longer life expectancy. Innovative work cells dramatically reduced human touches and associated ergonomic risks in a safe and staff-friendly environment. The new system’s one-day turnaround time drastically decreased the need for new cylinders and a large work-in-process inventory.