Airgas Receives Tracking Help from AppLabs

Airgas recently underwent a rapid expansion, but its workflow was done the old-fashioned way—manually. Manual processing is always painstaking, but entering data for 80,000 SKUs for specialty gases is especially tedious.

Airgas distributes industrial, medical and specialty gases and related products. Its network consists of 800 locations, including retail stores, gas fill plants, specialty gas labs, production facilities and distribution centers. The distributor creates specialty gases, mixing them for a specific application to calibrate measurement equipment. Specialty gases feature a mix of gases; each gas features a part number, directions how to make it, and notification about poisonous and explosive gases. Airgas offers more than 80,000 parts for specialty gases.

“We needed to do a better job at managing and creating part numbers…in our systems,” says Anthony Lopresti, Airgas’ director of eBusiness IT. “We’re getting more requests for new gases and specialty mixes, volume parts are growing, and the manual process wasn’t keeping up.”

Airgas relied on spreadsheets to capture data, including parts numbers, storage containers, safety information, grade classifications and costs. Inevitably, manual processes lead to problems. “We’d give a customer a quote on a mixture without giving out the part number, so the order entry was held up because we didn’t have the number in the system,” Lopresti says.

Airgas also wanted to improve requests for part numbers, manage existing part numbers and identifiers, create new part numbers and add safety check provisions before a part number is created.

The distributor wanted to create an automated workflow system from its existing legacy system, featuring .NET, XML and SQL Server databases. Airgas didn’t have the staff to work on the project, so it eventually selected AppLabs Technologies to tackle it. AppLabs is an IT services company that specializes in software testing and development.

Using Airgas’ initial concept and functional design, AppLabs developed the Pure Number Creation System, a .NET-based workflow system that runs on SQL Server and communicates with the order management and catalog systems via webMethods.

Airgas’ regional coordinators now make requests to create a part, routing it for review. A central authority coordinator creates or rejects a part number, or requests more clarification for a part. Once a part is created, the part data is automatically sent to the order management and catalog systems. Part information is also used by the production planning module application to generate work orders. Part numbers can also be modified, and any modification is automatically sent to these systems.

PNCS also supports wireless distributed application across WAN, so handheld devices receive updated barcode information when they check into the system. This wireless application had 21 documented changes alone, and AppLabs helped iron out these difficulties.

“The requirements changed, and Airgas wouldn’t have handled them as well” without AppLabs assistance, Lopresti says. “[Changes] can wreak havoc on a design if you don’t know how to handle it.”

About the Author

Kathleen Ohlson is senior editor at Application Development Trends magazine.