The local welding supply house is an important resource for any metal fabricator, but it isn’t normally the first call made when a fab shop has a production problem. A major independent supplier of gases and equipment is hoping to change that, however.
With headquarters in Memphis, Tenn., and several locations scattered over eight states in the South, nexAir has taken a major step toward positioning itself as a knowledge resource, not just as a storefront where a welder can pick up some welding wire and place an order for a cylinder of argon. It opened a 4,500-square-foot demonstration lab at its downtown facility as part of a major renovation, which includes the addition of two classroom areas, new office space, and a retail store. The demo room makes it unique among privately owned distributors that serve the manufacturing industry.
“We want to be viewed as experts for the people involved in cutting and joining metal,” said nexAir President Bill Proctor, who has been with the company since 1988, when it was known as Standard Welders and before it merged with nearby competitor Mid-South Oxygen to create nexAir in 1996.
The investment in such a lab doesn’t stray too far from nexAir’s mission of acting as a consultant during sales, according to Proctor. As distributors moved away from unique product lines and began to represent multiple lines of equipment, he said that some of these suppliers lost focus. They lost the depth of knowledge that was more commonplace when they needed to know about just one equipment line.
The company has tried to maintain that “focus,” Proctor said, by maintaining specialists for the key segments of the business, which include the medical community and users of specialty gases, but mainly revolve around metal manufacturing.
“It is incumbent on us as a supplier to fit the right equipment to the right application,” Proctor said.
The opening of the nexAir demonstration lab, which occurred in May, also helps to fill the growing void of manufacturing knowledge in the area. Even though the South has seen its manufacturing fortunes grow in recent years with an increase in onshoring and the relocation of companies from the Rust Belt states, Southern manufacturers are experiencing the same problems that their counterparts elsewhere in the U.S. are facing—finding skilled employees that are the right fit for their companies. Proctor said that the local workforce has a big gap in experience, with the average age of a welder being 55 at on one end of the spectrum and a new flock of inexperienced welders joining the trade at the other end.
The hope is that the demonstration lab will be able to reach out to local schools and trade programs, showing students the latest in manufacturing technology. Because of the expense of bringing in new equipment, many local educational institutions—and even local shops—wouldn’t have access to the state-of-the-art equipment being used today.
So what will visitors to the demonstration lab find? When they walk in, they will see a selection of personal protective and safety equipment; three welding stations with welding power source technology from Miller Electric, Lincoln Electric, and Fronius; a Retro Systems Mega Hornet 1000 plasma cutting machine with a Hypertherm power source; a Miller Electric PerformArc™ robotic workcell; and a microbulk welding gas delivery system, set up as it would be at a manufacturing operation.
While reaching out to the welders of tomorrow is important, nexAir also is in the business to sell equipment. Patrick Galphin, nexAir’s director of marketing, said the lab gives customers the chance to come and try out equipment before it’s delivered to their shop. For the larger systems, such as the plasma cutting machine, customers can send over files for parts that they cut, and the demo lab staff can have the machine ready to cut the parts when the customer arrives.
Sales Engineer Samantha Noland said that there is real power in having the fabricators and welders see the equipment in action. In some instances, the moment of inspiration comes when someone compares two welding technologies or just sees welding automation in operation.
Noland said she also has to keep things in perspective for visitors, from the company owner who might be enamored with the robotic workcell, but only needs to change welding wire to boost productivity to the welder who looks at any technology advancement with skepticism.
“I have to reassure people that the robot will be doing 3-in. welds all day long, and that will free them up to be working on the longer welds and the more complex parts,” Noland said.
Galphin said it is likely that hundreds of people will visit the new demo lab in the coming year, especially as nexAir solidifies its presence in Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee after forming a joint venture with Praxair in August 2012 and agreeing to run eight former Praxair locations. The distributor recently hosted close to 70 people over a week to see the plasma cutting machine’s capabilities, and those types of event are likely to become more frequent as fabricators look outside their businesses for production expertise.