World LP Gas Forum provides global perspective on technology needs

November 6, 2013 By    

I’m a big believer in industry gatherings – whether the spring National Propane Gas Association trade show in Atlanta, regional shows in the Midwest and West, or local- and state-focused association meetings.

They provide a great forum, not just to meet with old friends and catch up on business and industry trends, but also to share concerns and ideas and collaborate about ongoing technology initiatives.

I’ve even mentioned in prior articles the industry need to restart the annual Pinnacle conference – focused 100 percent on technology within the propane industry.

With this as context, I arrived at last month’s World LP Gas Forum in London with high expectations of productive and enlightening presentations, interesting conversations and informative group sessions. I was not disappointed.

The first thing that strikes you is the realization of how big and important propane is worldwide. It’s pretty amazing to sit and listen to speakers from places such as Sierra Leone and Kenya, learning how they import and distribute propane and how they manage the logistics of delivery and focus on safety. It’s a long way from Kansas.

Even Princess Anne (the queen’s daughter, by the way) in her opening remarks had a good grasp of not only propane but also the ongoing evolution of technology aimed at creating operational efficiencies.

My big takeaway from London was the large interest in two key areas – mobile logistics/remote tank monitoring (telemetry) and autogas. I can talk about the former and leave the latter to the experts and proponents.

It looks like countries such as the U.K., Spain, Portugal, France, Mexico and Brazil all have interesting options with respect to remote tank monitoring – ranging from cellular-based data distribution to Wi-Fi (home-based) data distribution.

The U.S. propane industry has access to an increasing number of similar U.S.-based vendors and should be explored, but the big difference I saw in London was the tight marriage between the data delivered by remote tank monitoring and the various back office forecasting solutions that are deployed in these countries.

There are few, if any, back office software providers that span the United States and Europe – and it’s clear to me that the European (but not yet South American) vendors have invested heavily in tight integration with remote tank usage data.

As I’ve described in a prior article, this tight data integration allows for dynamic real-time scheduling and live monitoring and can result in the next big step in delivery efficiency that you are all seeking. This is not easy integration and takes resources and time from software providers, but those in the United States that do invest in this integration will be ahead of the curve and benefit from this coming wave.

On the mobile front, I looked at quite a few sophisticated software mobile apps that manage bottled gas/industrial gas – which is an increasing need in the United States. The introduction of Android into Europe and the Middle East is also another interesting development, possibly marking a shift away from expensive, rugged and intrinsically safe alternatives.

Other interesting things surfaced along the way – for example, there was a lot of discussion and ideas around the subject of leveraging radio-frequency identification (RFID) and/or barcode scanning technology to help with such issues as reliably tracking tank assets in the field and theft of product. In fact, I talked to one propane marketer in particular (from Mexico) that has architected an interesting and reliable process to deploy RFID technology and mobile software to manage a bobtail’s register and prevent theft.

In short, I thought the London World LP Gas Forum was interesting and well worth the investment – providing a lot of insight into how propane and technology are being looked at globally. It was interesting to compare and contrast the priority of technology needs of those in the United States versus Europe, South America and the Middle East. I also ran into numerous people from the United States who similarly got a lot of benefit from London. Next October’s World LP Gas Forum in Miami should definitely make your 2014 calendar.

Vinny Mullineaux is the CEO of Vertrax, a provider of back office and mobile technology. He can be reached at vmull@vertrax.com or 203-952-7666.

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