Rarified air

North America’s leading singlesource supplier of gases, welding equipment, and safety products, Airgas is focused on a future of automation, digitization and sustainability

Backed by the might of its parent company, Air Liquide, Airgas has become the United States’ top supplier of industrial, medical and specialty gases, as well as one the nation’s largest suppliers of welding supplies and safety products. With over 50 plants and 18,000 people at its disposal, the $6 billion business is not only one of the industry’s most successful organizations, but also one of its most innovative.

“We are one of very few companies in this industry that is vertically integrated,” explains Chief Operating Officer Andy Cichocki. “We can produce and supply gases to our customers in any form, from pipeline, to large liquid deliveries in bulk tanks, through to cylinder operations. As a diversified solution provider, we are capable of growing with our customers.”

A key part of Airgas’ make-up has always been its deep network of production capabilities. In recent times, as part of efforts to further upgrade and improve its production facilities, the company has added new sites in North Carolina, Minneapolis and Pennsylvania.

“Our newest locations can each process upwards of 500 tons of liquid product a day – primarily oxygen, nitrogen and argon – delivering them directly to the customer via pipeline, truck, or by way of compression into cylinders as gas at one of our 350-cylinder fill plants. It’s a system well-suited to the shifting demand of the market.”

Dedicated to improving the performance of more than one million customers, Airgas serves a diverse range of sectors, including the welding and heavy industrial, energy, life sciences, and healthcare industries. With more than 950 retail branches across the country, the organization strives towards establishing a local presence for customers wherever they are located in the United States.

“Our unique service model means we have the ability to work everywhere in the country,” Andy reports. “Supported by a major organization like Air Liquide, we can offer the big capabilities, but with a local touch. It’s a really valuable detail.

“Additionally, we often partner with OEMs involved in welding goods and PPE, and jointly go to market in various localities, making us a total provider. Whatever the product, we have a manufacturer or outlet that can make it happen.”

RADNOR brand
One example of this type of project occurred as recently as April 2021 when Airgas partnered with 3M to launch a new line of RADNOR welding helmets. Combining the rugged reliability and value of RADNOR with the performance technology of the 3M Speedglas brand, the product aims to bring enhanced performance to customers at an affordable price point.

“RADNOR is a private label brand for us and its products are born out of input from our key Tier One and Tier Two partner suppliers,” Andy reveals. “Working together on projects means we can deliver quality products at a local level, while allowing the OEMs to increase their share of the market. Cobranded offerings like the RADNOR/3M helmet are not typical for this industry, but our partnerships act as an alternative to direct OEM purchase, and it’s certainly an innovative way forward.

“For as long as I can remember, we have worked on large co-operative projects with our big strategic accounts, and we always will,” he adds. “These include onsite projects, vending programs, and onsite training with welding specialists for the review of processes in facilities as a way of increasing efficiency.

“Whether our solutions are used directly by employees or in conjunction with automation, we want our customers to benefit as much as possible. You might think that increasing the efficient use of our goods leads to clients buying less product, but actually, we find that it brings us return business and a larger share of the market because people find value in what we do.”

Complementing Airgas’ strong portfolio of local branches is a multi-channel market mix that includes telesales and web market portals. “The ultimate goal,” Andy says, “is to become an omnichannel organization, capable of servicing customers in any way they wish.”

Backed by its expertise in gases, hardgoods and safety items, Airgas prides itself on developing and delivering some of theindustry’s most advanced solutions. Forexample, as the need for medical oxygen has risen since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, the company has developed and released a number of pioneering products to help serve this demand. These items include INTELLI-OX, an innovative oxygen cylinder with enhanced features and proven reliability that can increase patient safety, optimize time and improve efficiency.

“Every gurney in a hospital has an oxygencylinder under it,” Andy explains. “Traditionally,you had to attach a regulator and monitor to it, but INTELLI-OX cylinders have a unique valve integrated, as well as alarms and gauges to make it easier for nurses and doctors to know if the cylinder is empty or full. It’s a special package for hospitals that we marry through our ALTEC technical solutions group, providinga much safer and easier application of gases.

“As you can probably gather, at Airgas, we are not a basic, broad commodity distributor, we are delivering solutions to help customersbecome better,” Andy continues. “For instance,we now offer a program called Unlocking theHidden Cost of Welding to our clients, whichcan help them find efficiency on the shopfloor through increased productivity, improvedquality and sustainable cost reductions.”

Dedicated to safety
In 2021, a major shortage of welders in theUnited States continues to impact companiesacross the nation. By way of response tothis issue, Airgas’ next challenges surround automation and digitization.

“Automation is coming in and getting betterand more flexible,” Andy declares. “Not onlyare we bringing a cobot to market at presentto help customers experiment with lightwelding automation, but internally we are alsotrying to digitize a lot of our own processes,from the paper in our offices, to how werun our plants, all the way through to howcustomers interact with us.”

No matter how much the business grows and changes over the next decade, Airgas will be guided by its culture and core principles, which include speed, local accountability and responsibility, and safety. The latter, Andy argues, has always been the firm’s top priority.

“Safety is paramount in everything we do,” he asserts. “Nothing is more important. We are handling flammable, dangerous products at pressure and customers expect us to be experts that are flawless in safety.”

Such dedication to safe working principles is illustrative of the high regard in which Airgas holds its workforce and its clients. Highly people-centric in its approach, the firm continues to support local communities in 2021 through a High School Welding Education Initiative and far-reaching efforts to establish Airgas as a more sustainable, environmentally-friendly operation.

“We use a lot of energy in our work, but if we can use less, we will be a better, more cost-effective company that positively impacts the environment, our communities, and our people,” Andy remarks. “We are at the beginning of a long journey with alternative fuels like hydrogen and we are already partnering successfully with customers and suppliers for the safe handling and efficient application of these resources. Whether it’s helping people use new fuels efficiently, assisting them in monitoring emissions, or participating in the use of alternative fuel with a modernized truck fleet at Airgas, there are going to be a lot of opportunities for us in the future.”

As Airgas gears up for the next decade, Jay Worley, President of the firm’s West Division, is set to take over as Chief Operating Officer in October 2021. Ready to oversee the transition towards more digitization, automation and efficient sustainability, Jay is confident that the organization can be optimistic about the future.

“I believe that the outlook and future prospects for the company are really compelling,” Jay states. “When you combine our local presence; our enterprising, customer-facing teams; our vast production and distribution network; our national infrastructure; our evolving digital channels; and finally, our value-adding expertise, you have a company that is well-positioned to make the best of both the person-to-person B2B environment, and the dynamic, everchanging, digital B2B world.

“In summary,” Jay concludes, “I think we are going to continue evolving in a way that optimizes our customers’ competitiveness through the use of digital technology. We hope to do it sustainably, preparing ourselves sufficiently for the transition that the whole world is heading into.”

Products: Supplier of gases, welding equipment and safety products