Leading the new era of automation

To reduce accidents and increase efficiency, Linde has robots do the heavy lifting in its filling plants.

It’s a steep slope the elderly Japanese lady is climbing and it doesn’t get any easier carrying a basket full of mandarins. More than half of Japan’s farm workers are over 65, forcing the nation to make a choice: decreasing productivity in the agricultural sector or increasing efforts in a field Japan is famous for – automation.

Said countrywoman, depicted in a German tv report on aging societies, wears an exoskeleton that helps her overcome manual labour seemingly effortless, reaching a new level of human-machine-interaction. Similar systems make their way into other sectors, for example the industrial gases industry. Human muscle power is taking a back seat in one of Linde’s most modern cylinder filling plants: the Sydney Operations Centre in Wetherill Park.

The Centre’s new system sets out to reshape cylinder handling in the 21st century. At the heart of it is a world-first application of a six-axis robot that transforms the way cylinders are sorted, picked and moved. Besides the automation, highlights encompass gantry robots, optical inspection capabilities to check cylinders for damage before reuse and automated guided vehicles (AGV) – driverless forklifts equipped with state-of-the-art sensors and cameras as they are also applied in the development of autonomous cars. In total, BOC Australia, a member of the Linde Group, invested about 15 million AUD into a robot cylinder automation system.

Six-axes industrial robot in the automated filling plant in Sidney, Australia
This six-axis robot, a world-first application, transforms the way cylinders are sorted, picked and moved.
Experience the first fully automated filling plant for gas cylinders in this video

“One of our main aims by introducing the new level of automation was to reduce the number of manual handling steps at the stations,” explains Peter Dunn, Manager Regional Engineering at BOC Australia. “The heavy labour takes its toll on our workers – especially those who have been doing it over time.” With gas cylinders weighing between 30 and 50 kilos, hauling them about is certainly not ideal for the shoulders, elbows, wrists or feet. “By automating various process steps, we are significantly reducing the risk of incidents.”

In other words, automation takes people out of the picture at physically strenuous and hazardous points – and internal incident statistics are already starting to reflect this. While there were 150 of these incidents worldwide in 2013, the number of forklift-related accidents in 2017 was down by half – in part thanks to the use of AGVs.

But automation is not only helping to reduce the risk of injuries. It’s a game changer. The technology transformation will benefit both company and its customers. Robots, sensors, 3D cameras – all these cutting-edge features of an emerging new machine age provide unseen efficiency gains, higher quality levels and greater flexibility. As for the filling plant in Sydney the new system allows BOC to supply many scientific and calibration gases in almost half of the time and at a higher packing pressure.

The automated family

The plant in Sydney is part of an automated plant family spreading over different regions of the world and various countries: Riihimäki (Finland), Enköping (Sweden) as well as Marl and Unterschleißheim (Germany) to name just a few. Each family member is bringing in new automated solutions. As a process and technology expert for filling plants around the globe, Rob Wark is one of the people playing a key role in shaping the new working world at Linde. “We don’t intend to automate every single plant – only the ones where it makes sound business sense. And even then, it won’t necessarily extend to every workflow.”

Wark is responsible for overseeing the global transformation of the Group’s gas filling plants. His mission began five years ago, when senior management decided to review the future viability of Linde’s 400 or so filling plants, obviously taking regional and market-specific requirements into account. “We set out to find a modular, scalable solution – and not a universal blueprint,” Wark explains. This was not a one-size-fits-all project; the aim was to align the degree of automation with local dynamics such as the competitive landscape, customer demands and labour costs.

With one of the plant family members located in Sydney, BOC Australia is now leading the new era of automation.

For a longer version of this article download Linde’s annual report here.

Linde runs around 400 filling plants worldwide. (RGB colour model – for digital use)
Molecules don’t like to travel. Linde therefore distributed its filling plants across the globe.