World-first robotics for Australian gas exporter

BOC's world-first robotics sorts through thousands of gas cylinders daily.

Specialist gas producer BOC has unveiled a $35 million upgrade to its Western Sydney plant. Manufacturers’ Monthly paid the site a visit.

From the outside looking in, BOC’s gas operations at Wetherill Park in Western Sydney look relatively untouched.

In its yard, hundreds of used and recycled cylinders are still painted an array of colours, which, by Australian government safety regulations, differentiate one gas from another.

While some things don’t change, there has been a major transformation at the site, which represents a vision of the future.

A new $20 million specialty gases production facility was unveiled last month to compliment a $15 million cylinder automation suite, which includes world-first robotics to sort through thousands of gas cylinders daily.

The technology signifies a new way that gas is bottled and exported.

At a time when Australia is chasing down the bill as the world’s biggest gas exporter, the manufacturing industry is facing uncertainty over gas prices domestically, and was a topic of debate at BOC’s official unveiling last month.

Senator Matt Canavan, Australia’s resources minister, told an audience that he acknowledged and shared concerns from John Evans, BOC South Pacific’s managing director, around the burden high electricity prices place on the manufacturing industry.

“Like everybody else, we have been hit by substantial electricity bills,” Evans told Manufacturers’ Monthly. “For us, this investment [in a special gases facility] helps to minimise some of that pain to our customers, by giving them additional value to compete on the global stage.”

Canavan stressed that, while reducing electricity prices is a priority for the Australian government, a solution is being sought.

“I note, today, in some of the financial press that they describe this [BOC’s new facilities] as an ‘unusual’ success story’,” Canavan said, “and, while I can sometimes understand that sentiment, I want to say up front that I don’t think that is right at all.

“We have a very strong manufacturing sector in this country. We have a vibrant and successful manufacturing story inAustralia and this is yet another example of what we can do as Australians.

“It has been a tough couple of decades for manufacturing but the reality is we have so many advantages in this country to continue to have a strong manufacturing sector.”

The new plant can supply and produce up to 8,000 high-purity and specialty gases.
The new plant can supply and produce up to 8,000 high-purity and specialty gases.

Automating gas production

BOC’s specialty gases plant has the capacity to produce and supply 8,000 high-purity and specialty gases to high-value industries in Australia – from science and medical research, to manufacturing and energy exports.

“From my point of view, this is a fantastic recommitment to this site, to this business, and our customers, demonstrating confidence in the way we want to go forward,” Evans said.

“This is a critical part of our infrastructure and does supply all parts of Australia.

Each year [across the whole site] we handled over 1.3 million cylinders and produce an enormous range of cylinders including a mix of special gases.

“Typically, a lot of the hydro-carbon mixtures made here we import for the LNG plants, whereas now we will be able to make and mix those ourselves.”

Given time, Evans explained that the upgrade will create millions of dollars of gas exports, once BOC has built “credibility and capability” in the Asian market, where demand is increasing.

“This step gives us the confidence to expand overseas and also meet the future needs of our customers,” he continued.

“Moving some of these products into the research and development area, they are really unique mixtures of gas that need to be put together.

“To me, this is a good example of a company finding a niche and finding a way to do it better. For us, it is about protecting the long-term future of our customers and ourselves.”

Among the industrial and political entourage, BOC’s parent company, The Linde Group, gave the transformation its seal of approval.

Sanjiv Lamba, Linde CEO for Asia-Pacific, described it as a “significant investment and recommitment” to gas manufacturing.

“When I was here about a year ago, the [special gases] facility on my left was completely empty and had been cleared out to make way for this facility of the future, which is how were described it at that point,” Lamba said.

“Of course, this has all been made possible by the supreme effort put in by our team, with many people across Linde-BOC working together to make sure we have a facility we can be proud of and positions us well for the market of the future.”

For the first time, BOC will have the opportunity to export out of its facility into the Asia-Pacific region in new sectors, he continued.

“The growth represents a great new opportunity for BOC and its business here [in Australia] to support emerging markets in Asia across a number of segments including medical research, environmental, petrol-chemical industries and manufacturing,” Lamba said.

The launch of the cylinder automation system is a landmark moment for BOC.
The launch of the cylinder automation system is a landmark moment for BOC.

Innovating operations

Embracing the new era of advanced amanufacturing and digital technology, BOC revealed a robot cylinder automation system that has transformed the way cylinders are sorted, picked and moved around the busy production site.

“We are in the gas business and, after 29 years, I have seen hundreds of thousands of cylinders being filled, sorted, and delivered every day – including 35,000 at this site alone,” Lamba continued.

“Until this point, we have never seen this done with robots and automated vehicles. This is a world first and a great achievement for the BOC company, and will have a lasting impact on The Linde Group.”

The system is a world-first application of a six-axis robot combined with four turntables that can see, pickup and handle cylinders.

“The launch of this cylinder automation system is a landmark moment for BOC, driving a competitive advantage, and representing a significant safety investment for the Sydney Operations Centre, which produces more than 1.3 million cylinders each year,” Evans continued.

“Designed with global experts and local engineers, the system integrates advanced laser vision technologies, automated guide vehicles, robots and 3D cameras, which has successfully automated manual handling processes and introduced new skills of the future into BOC’s workforce.”

Also in attendance, Western Sydney minister Stuart Ayers said the site was a “strong tick” for advanced manufacturing in Australia.

“For manufacturing to be successful in Australia, it has to operate at the end of the value chain and leverage high-quality staff,” he said.

“While we may pay them for the reflection of their skills, we have to make sure we continue to operate at the end of the value chain.”