Efficiency in logistics
Herbert Schenke – Head of Bulk Product & Supply Chain Management, Region Continental & Northern Europe
Linde is constantly working to ensure the most reliable, cost-efficient liquefied gases delivery service to its customers. Success hinges on attention to detail – from precise production analysis through smooth communication channels right up to flexible transport management.
It’s 7 o’clock in the morning. With extreme precision, Linde driver Manfred Wieland reverses his 40-tonne truck to sit under the 15-metre storage tank on the air separation unit (ASU) in Basel, Switzerland. On-board cameras help guide the truck inch by inch towards the giant vessel, which holds three million cubic metres of nitrogen. Wieland starts off by cleaning the special stainless steel mesh pipe used to fill his tanker. “Air – or should I say, the absence of air – matters,” he explains. “When I fill my tanker, I need to be absolutely sure that there are no traces of other gases in the pipeline.” Like all other drivers at Linde, Wieland regularly attends dedicated training courses on the safe transport of industrial gases. And he has clocked up 14 years of experience on the job. To fill the vacuum-insulated tank on the lightweight trailer, Wieland keys his driver data into the registration panel of the automatic filling system. Soon afterwards, the liquid nitrogen, cooled to minus 196 degrees Celsius, flows into the trailer. The entire filling process is monitored by a second control line, which measures online pressure and analysis parameters.
Teamwork at its best
Linde driver Manfred Wieland fills his trailer with liquid nitrogen while logistics experts based in Munich balance supply versus demand over the next ten days.
At the same time, it’s business as usual back in Pullach near Munich. Dr Dexin Luo, supply chain analyst at Linde, is leading a video conference. One by one, the representatives from all of Linde’s air separation units across central Europe join the call and appear on the four-metre conference wall. The Friday alignment calls always kick off with the same key questions. Who needs industrial gases – how much and where? How much will be produced where over the coming week? And – most importantly – how can supply and demand be better balanced given the current market dynamics? “Even a small variation in temperature as a result of a change in weather can have an impact on our production and logistics network,” explains Luo. “If it’s cold at a given location, we need less energy to generate gases there, making operations more cost-effective. So it might make sense to supply our customers from that location even though we had originally earmarked a different ASU. In today’s market, details such as this are key to supply chain efficiency. And that is precisely what we are aiming for. We even develop special programmes to maximise efficiencies.”
Supply chain analyst Dr Dexin Luo is in constant contact with her colleagues at the air separation units in central Europe.
Structural process change
One such programme is called Tonnage and Bulk Operational Optimiser. This central optimisation process helps Linde achieve operational excellence for both on-site supplies (where the gas is produced on the customer’s premises and supplied by pipeline) and bulk deliveries (where the gas is delivered in liquid form by tanker). Taking the widest range of variables into consideration, this programme gives the Pullach supervision the insights it needs to manage and optimise production and distribution across 25 ASUs in central Europe.
It can be a complex task – as Basel clearly shows. At this single ASU, up to 50 loads are scheduled every day with nitrogen, oxygen and argon. These gases are then delivered to customers dotted around a border triangle – taking drivers to Lake Constance near the Alps, Alsace in northern France, the Valais in southern Switzerland and the German midlands, to mention but a few. “Today, logistics also means being able to work efficiently and independently across national borders,” says Herbert Schenke, responsible for coordinating and constantly refining the liquefied gases supply chain at Linde. “When we talk improvements, we always look at the entire chain rather than just at individual segments,” he continues. “We have seen an overall structural shift in logistics in recent times. The new landscape is defined by innovative software and modern digital capabilities. And we are keen to make the most of these developments – from production analysis through to satellite navigation with special maps that we have supplied to our vehicles. All of which we support with regular training for our people.”
The logistics team at the Scheduling Centre knows exactly when gas has been delivered to a customer – thanks to real-time telemetry functionality. They also know when the next delivery is due.
Worldwide, Linde operates over 3,000 vehicles to secure liquefied gases deliveries to its customers. In total, these trucks travel over 400 million kilometres every year. Manfred Wieland, for instance, completes around 300 runs a year, serving around 1,000 customers. Which adds up to a travel distance of around 120,000 kilometres.
The tractors are used for around five years before being replaced with new, more environmentally friendly and cost-effective models. Wieland’s latest unit, an eco-trailer, is significantly lighter than its predecessor, has a higher payload, comes with more active and passive safety features and consumes on average two litres less fuel per hundred kilometres. “Of course each new truck is a big investment,” says Schenke. “But it pays off quickly.” For Schenke, a transport fleet equipped to the highest standards is one of the pillars underpinning the business. “Our lightweight trailers featuring state-of-the-art software translate into reliable, cost-effective deliveries to our customers,” he concludes.
Improved route planning
Customer orders are sent daily to the Scheduling Centre in Augsburg. The scheduling experts coordinate the entire trailer fleet and constantly update and optimise the delivery routes.
While the Pullach team is busy planning gas production operations, the Scheduling Centre in Gablingen (near Augsburg) is consolidating and evaluating customer data for Germany and neighbouring countries. “This is the heart of our logistics operations,” reveals Schenke. Customer requirements are sent to the Scheduling Centre, where orders are processed and delivery routes mapped out. More than ten thousand customers are served from this centre alone. Each individual team member looks after several hundred customers, using dashboards that pull information from multiple sources. Where are Linde trailers currently located? How much gas does a customer have left? Which customers urgently need a refill? The answers are all in Augsburg. Here the team speaks English, German, French, Italian and Dutch. Day after day, they work hard to determine the best delivery slot and route, relying on tank telemetry rather than phone calls. Previously, customers had to phone in their orders, but now the Linde team can use the latest software and telecommunications advances to verify tank levels remotely – in real time. So they know exactly which customers will need which liquefied gases, in what volumes and where over the next few hours.
If a customer needs a delivery at short notice, the logistics experts can modify delivery routes on demand and transmit new schedules to the driver’s on-board computer.
The Augsburg logistics centre is playing an increasingly important role at Linde. “At present, we are looking at the possibility of coordinating transport processes for other neighbouring countries from Gablingen,” says Schenke, underlining that, as ever, close cooperation with production is key.
Truck driver Wieland provides daily proof of the successful interplay between production and logistics across national borders. He leaves Basel with a trailer full of nitrogen for a manufacturer of pumps, turbines and compressors based in Hésinque in northeastern France. “We deliver nitrogen in varying purities to the widest range of industries,” he reports. “For instance, we supply cryobanks, food manufacturers and even watchmakers, who need nitrogen to harden the metal.” Once Wieland arrives at the sprawling manufacturing site in Hésinque, Linde’s dedicated satellite system in the on-board computer navigates the trailer directly to the point of delivery, ensuring Wieland gets to the right tank as quickly and efficiently as possible.
And just one hour later, the last drop of liquid gas evaporates as the pipe is removed from the tank. Wieland gets behind the wheel again to see that his on-board computer has already worked out his next assignment – a metallurgy customer at Lake Constance needs a refill.
On target – a customer gets the liquid nitrogen they need for their production and Manfred Wieland moves on to supply the next customer.