TubeMaster®, Inc. History
TubeMaster®, Inc. was created in 2001 as a spinoff company from a former parent company VESCO Engineering, Inc. (VESCO). VESCO (now sold) was in the business of solving engineering and maintenance problems for a wide range of companies including chemicals, automotive, food, metals, municipal water and waste water and schools. Beginning in 1989, VESCO went on to create a multitude of solutions which occasionally resulted in some type of invention or disruptive technology. Many of these solutions involved custom computerized devices which had at their core an optimized design/specification for all or for a significant portion thereof. This holistic approach included using sensors, cabling, signal conditioning, data acquisition and customized software that both existed or were rapidly emerging and while this was not an uncommon process for other engineering firms we tended to do it on the cheap at very low cost and very quickly.
For example, we frequently were able to obtain prototypes and samples of new components directly from non-industry leader suppliers preferring to get free ones and then connecting them with similarly cheap and recycled connectors, cables, signal conditioning routed to a reconditioned Gateway 2000 desktop computer because it had lots of available full length card slots which we stuffed with cheap but very capable data acquisition cards. Next, we developed custom software to drive the cards to collect data which we wanted to analyze, log, and graphically display the results. Doing so in a few days, at a cost of just hundreds of dollars instead of many thousands, gave us a huge competitive advantage. Not only could we do it fast and profitably, we began to create a do-everything yourself cooperative environment or culture that would continue to serve us well in the future as TubeMaster®, Inc. grew. More than one who saw what we’re doing called us a miniature Skunk Works. All of the hacking, scrapping, coding, creating, building, sharing and executing cool solutions fast innovations along with continuous improvement would later become the driving force behind TubeMaster®, Inc.
We had been doing this since 1989 for things like: a two dimensional high-speed center of gravity measurement system for General Electric remote multi-channel vibration sensing systems, rollover propensity system for tractor trailers complete with GPS and digital mapping. An opto-mechanical alignment system over 30 meters tall, a submerged torsional load monitoring system. A three dimensional center of gravity measurement system for cargo aircraft and a 50+ channel hydrogen furnace monitoring system for real and apparent power.
Catalyst-Handling – What’s That All About?
Then one day we got a call from a new type of business we had never heard of, a catalyst-handling contractor. That phone call in 1994 led to some basic improvements in some old-school catalyst-handling equipment. Just a few months later VESCO invented the world’s first computer controlled catalyst loading cart. Our cart could control vibratory hoppers to dispense catalyst at a controlled rate using an accelerometer based control system to automatically regulate a magnetic vibrator. We called our invention the Computerized Vibration Stabilizer or CVS. The basis for the CVS was earlier work we had done for General Electric in 1992. Years later we were shocked to learn that the US Patent Office issued a patent containing our invention to someone else. About that time got serious and learned all about the world of intellectual property which are just plain old property rights but ginned up.
Later USPTO would also issue two more patents with our invention but sadly we never got listed as inventors in these three patents were the VESCO inventors listed as inventors even though we let the patent holder know who we were and what we did. In the old days the patent office called this fraud on the patent office but today to be PC it is called Inequitable Conduct.
Other catalyst handling inventions immediately followed including a computerized delta-p measurement system. Those inventions were sold to a client who was at the time a global catalyst-handling contractor.
Later when VESCO Engineering’s staff had an opportunity to actually observe catalyst loading and delta/p testing we noticed the contractor and perhaps the industry as a whole had room for improvement! First of all, as engineers, we thought it odd that people in the trade called it dp or delta/p testing since it is obvious to those in the know that delta means you measure both or a difference in pressure which was clearly not the case. We could only find a couple of catalyst manufactures who used the technically correct term, pressure-drop testing. This was our second clue that the niche industry of catalyst-handling was underserved.
We did a market study and it turned out tubular reactor customers had been asking for better equipment for years but for some reason the then club of catalyst-handling contractors sat on their hands and did very little. Clients all along were asking for technology solutions since their own plants were full of innovations that were delivering tremendous value. Imagine being a plant engineer then with a modern control room, metrology lab, high skilled technicians but when he ordered a catalyst change; only to have contractors show up and write thousands of pressure-drop numbers down by hand on paper and then try to reconcile problems on a row by row basis using low skilled and low paid laborers. As a UK friend of ours said, “It was a bloody mess.” It was evident to us that at a large part of the ethylene oxide industry and other chemicals had been tolerating high levels of risk so long that there was a legacy of serious problems largely propagated by those doing work who were ill prepared both equipment-wise and technical-wise. Clearly we had come across a great opportunity.
To make matters worse, since the existing contractors had so little technology they were being commoditized by purchasing managers giving the contractors no option but to compete based on price. VESCO had always been sole-sourced because we focused on the design/build model versus the old school Specs>Drawings>Bid>Contractor Selection>Inspection. With our modern approach to design/build we had been using a win-win model. We had grown up with it and we loved it. We loved it because we were in-charge of everything and since we were and are basically control freaks, this suited our personalities to a tee. Clients loved it too since design/build delivers solutions much faster (and cheaper) than the old-school way. The best part was that design/build inevitably allowed us to partner with clients so that we could work with them to ensure they both learned and knew about the value they were getting but that we as a company could at the same time grow our engineering prowess way beyond what most expected of us. We thought we could take our design/build model and see if we could get sole source work from a static industry that was making contractors complete. Over time our model would become our secret sauce. Disruptive things are sure to happen especially in the culture we worked so hard upon. Ours was not always one based on continuous improvement and respect but after getting some new people on our bus and getting rid of a couple as well as changing some seating positions on our bus, we had a great team and better culture. While not perfect, we get it and we are now on our way to a chemical plant near you.
From its genesis as an engineering firm VESCO. TubeMaster®, Inc. knew the best way to address the problems associated with catalyst-handling was to create solutions that were disruptive. Our strategy to get chemical reactor owners to pay attention to a small company far away from Houston, Baton Rouge, Rotterdam, Antwerp, Jubail and Shanghai was to identify and address not the easy problems first but the more difficult ones. So we took on the hardest problem first, pressure-drop testing. After all, we needed a disruptive solution and wow were we disruptive but, mostly for the old-school contractors.
After inventing the accelerometer-based control system and a computerized upgrade to a multi-channel pressure test system in 1994 we remained busy with plenty of projects serving our regular VESCO clients. This work kept us busy in 11 states and four countries so in other words, catalyst-handling was not really in our wheel house for some time. Still in the back of our mind this catalyst-handling thing was an entire industry that was so totally ripe for innovation and which was not being well served. So, in our spare time we went about studying and learning about the catalyst-handling market for several years all the while continuing our normal R&D work creating all matter of new solutions. We had a lot of fun doing basically all kinds of cool things. We learned with each project and the fact that we were doing so much variety at any given time there just was not a lot of time to be remiss about something as obscure as catalyst-handling was to us at that time. In other words, we almost missed doing anything else for catalyst-handling ever again. At the time VESCO’s slogan was “Creating Technical Solutions to Engineering Challenges Today”. Being disruptive has always been a part of our DNA and once a strand of that DNA got locked onto catalyst-handling it became a compelling force to draw our creative energy towards it.
Bruce: Our Gentleman Mentor
After we were guided by our then mentor Mr. Bruce Guelich a retired executive and former WWII Navy Destroyer Engineering Officer who taught us about strategic planning we selected three areas where we thought we could produce inventions and even grow an entirely new business. We picked three things to work on. After our work with G.E. we thought to further exploit our work in multi-dimensional center of gravity instrumentation and systems. This resulted in the first of our two ideas. First we would create a system capable of measuring the three-dimensional center of gravity for pallets and containers in real time for cargo aircraft in order to save fuel with respect to moment-based load planning. We built a prototype, created code for a software simulation, got NDAs in place with both FedEx and UPS, made technical presentations, completed preliminary designs and specs along with initial proposals. All was going well until we learned that there was a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking and that both FedEx and UPS were just using us as remote contingency as they were spending megabucks on lobbyists and lawyers to avoid the very thing our system would do. Nevertheless, we learned how our government really works and made several submissions to the Federal dockets involved only to be overwhelmed by well placed political forces.
To make a long story short FedEx, UPS and other cargo aircraft somehow got permission via a FAA regulation to do the same thing they did in the past, which was actually nothing. This is despite an actual regulation that requires all cargo flown on planes to be geometrically located such that the center of gravity of all cargo on a pallet or in container to be within 10% of the geometric center the very thing our solution would do in real time as it was being loaded. Nevertheless the FAA issued an official Alternate Means of Compliance, AMOC for short that said the carriers could continue to do the successful thing they were doing. The only ruse was that they were just ignoring the regulation and even argued that they didn’t know how to measure a 3D center of gravity (that of course was a lie). Anyway, we called it the do-nothing AMOC and we were dead in the water. So we did what any innovator who just got slammed does, we moved on to work on the next idea.
We Are On A Roll
Next we invented a rollover propensity system as a new safety device for over the road tractor trailers. Like before, we designed and built not a prototype but the real thing. We rented a trailer and borrowed a tractor from the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet who under public pressure after a horrible fatal incident that killed ten people when a 220 pound pedestal fell off of a trailer only to have another tractor trailer swerve to miss it and lose control, cross the median and crash into two vehicles, one a van of family members who died horribly and an SUV, a Ford Expedition which belonged to a friend of a VESCO employee who reportedly purchased the vehicle for its perceived protection factor. The occupants in the Ford were killed as well. After the Chairman of the Cabinet heard of our device he authorized a vehicle they had been using as part of a Federal Highways project be made available to us for testing. Strange way to pay for something. No wonder we have such large deficits.
After our equipment was installed it was a nice day and we did not have another paying project to work on so that we could conduct a field test we would call the driver to come over from Frankfort and pick up the 48 foot long flatbed trailer located in front of our office. Next we would make some connections and go to the local scrap yard who happened to be one of VESCO’s clients. We took care of their 4,500 hp shredding machine. That’s another story. We would visit the yard that had what we needed, a large piece of scrap metal. Preferably; just one piece. Oh, yeah and a very heavy one. Something on the order of 25,000 to 40,000 pounds worked just fine. This took more than a lot of logistics. It took a lot of coffee, cookies and pizza to make this happen because we needed a crane to pick and place the object on the flatbed. We always had to get a different piece of scrap for each test because the scrap yard cut the stuff up faster than we could test.
It turned out that our new rollover propensity system worked as planned although I must admit it was a little squirrelly going downhill through hairpin turns with a 38,500 chuck of steel tipping the truck to near rollover levels when we devising the calibration process. Somehow we survived. Next we began to meet with all the major trucking companies in the US including FedEx and UPS. Only a few of them would sign our NDA. Without properly executed NDAs we were very limited on what we could tell not to mention show prospective clients and still protect our patent rights. We learned a lot about trucks, a huge amount about tires, trailers of all types and all kinds of loads, including the rollover nightmare load, swinging meat. We added GPS mapping to our software and before you could say truck stop in Spanish we had a system that could make average drivers as good as ones with 40 years of experience and ready to retire. We ran into, no pun intended, problems. One is that safety when it comes to vehicles is paid for in blood. The American standard for vehicles is so poor that it stands alone when it comes to safety with the equivalent of a loaded 100 passenger airplane crashing every single day. Lots of blood. The large commercial trucking companies are not much better as the fatality rate between them and passenger cars is 1.6 per compared to 1.7 per 100 million miles. Trucking companies kill plenty of drivers and they seemed like our market, or so we thought. Trucking companies instead use risk management and insurance instead of actually being serious about safety. The cost of a tractor trailer, its load and the driver was then about 2.5 million dollars. Do the math. If a trucking company has 14,000 trailers and 4,000 tractors like JB Hunt did they could spend about $500 per truck just for safety else it was better for them to let the driver die. Our problem is that our system was going to cost at least $1,000 each and that was if we put one on at least 40% of all the tractors and trailers in North America. I maintain a lot of respect for truck drivers personally, it is our culture of such poor safety that I hate. We had the trailer in front of our office for over a year and our neighbors really appreciated it when we dropped the rollover project.
The third item on our list was…did you guess it? Catalyst-handling. About one year after we launched in the US we began in Europe. It was during that time that Bruce, who became our trusted council for so many years, became ill and passed. Success has many friends and before we had success we had many failures, two are detailed above. Those failures were expensive but we learned a tremendous amount that we would need later. Bruce was quick with a smile to lift our disappointment. While he never told us what specifically to do we never did anything of real consequence without regarding the lessons he had taught us along the way. It was through Bruce’s guidance that we formed our culture around and began to take real risk. That culture continued to grow and improve over the years. To say we would not be where we are today without Bruce would be a disservice to his tutelage and the students he chose. Much of what is best about TubeMaster®, Inc. today had its start with Bruce. Little did we know then the success we would become today. That was us of course, what did we know? Bruce knew it all along. If your company was fortunate enough to have a Bruce as we did then you know what I speak of. If yours has not found one yet, I encourage you to keep looking. It turns out Bruce taught others to be like him too.
Now, About Catalyst-Handling
After the center of gravity and rollover projects we did a bunch of custom design / build of machines and even some acoustics. Acoustic work was always fun because we would often use a 12-gauge shotgun for reverberation testing large spaces. We come back to problems in catalyst-handling and in early 2001 we opted to solve what was then and still is the most challenging issue of catalyst-handling, efficient pressure-drop testing. On the bad side a lot of clients warned us that catalyst-handling had more than its their fair share of pirates who simply took and copied whatever technology they could and called it their own. Well, at least we knew what we were getting into. After all, most pirates come to justice eventually; from other pirates or the noose of justice. One of the authors of the Ethylene Oxide Handbook when referring to the catalyst handling contractors we would have to work with said, “They’re all pirates”. With such strong language we knew we would also have to work harder than ever to elevate the client’s views of this industry. In other words we would have to earn their respect. We assumed that most of the reactor service technicians were not the pirates our author friend was referring but more likely it was the managers and leaders of the contracting companies themselves. Today, after working with many of the front line catalyst workers and with more and more contact with the managers and leaders we believe the pirate comment was not entirely true as we found the piracy thing going both ways. Yuck!
Of course, there are always exceptions and we are grateful to have had the opportunity to work with certain contractors who share a mutual respect with regards to us and for our intellectual property. Clearly, it is the clients themselves who have even more to lose. TubeMaster®, Inc. is not the FBI but we are not bashful to contact them when we become aware that someone or some organization has misappropriated our trade secrets. Love those Texas Rangers when it comes to trade secrets. Still, we do what we can to protect our technology as much as possible with patents, trademarks, copyrights and of course trade secrets. One thing is for sure, if you want others to respect your intellectual property and trade secrets you must first honor and respect theirs. TubeMaster®, Inc. has the highest regards for the intellectual property of others including clients and contractors alike. We only ask they do similar.
On Your Mark, Get Set, Engage
It took three months working part time around other projects to specify and design a solution. Next it took three months to build and test a prototype. Within a couple of weeks we were meeting with chemical reactor owners who after telling them our solution was not ten percent, not one hundred percent but 1,000%. We had no problem scheduling meetings with new clients whom we had both never met nor had any kind of business relationship. The client would typically carve out an hour or so for a presentation but when we actually put on our dog and pony show the meetings went on for hours. Four to six hours became typical. Our technology was on fire! More than one engineer told us, “This is the best presentation I have ever attended”. It was at this point that we knew our gizmo really was a disruptive solution and more importantly that it was addressing all the right high risk problems that the catalyst-handling contractors had been exposing their clients to for years! We were not just selling a solution to a problem we had proven we understood the value of eliminating the risk of things like, “How much it is worth to never miss a tube again”? and “How much it costs to have the plant offline for two days just to test compared to less than a shift”?
As a result, this disruptive device became our flagship product. We called it the Tube Test Device™ or just TTD™ since Cliff had taken a shine to using three letter abbreviations when possible. This was an obvious result of his time as sailor in the US Navy aboard a nuclear powered submarine.
The TTD™ was our engineering solution to ensuring multi-tubular reactor owners could know for certain that every catalyst-packed tube was tested and that failed tubes were properly located and corrected before the reactor was released to operations. The TTD™ offered value by design using a laser to measure the location of every tube on the tubesheet. Previously, clients were forced, usually by their contractor, to use paper and pencil to record test results. Even today few have progressed beyond multi-step processes that while electronic, can only log a row test data at a time.
The Need For Speed
Amazingly, the TTD™ by automatically testing 10 tubes at once and removing the operator from the test process remains the fastest in the world since its introduction in 2002. The TTD™ is the only ten-tube fully automated pressure-drop test system that is to a large degree a one-button device available worldwide. The TTD™ is so efficient that it can reduce the time of blowdown and test by at least 50% and usually more no matter what the specific reactor conditions are. In practice, we set records for speed and quality every time we test. In 2004, TubeMaster®, Inc. tested a reactor with 25,250 tubes in just 4 hours and 15 minutes at the amazing average speed of over 6,000 tests per hour using nine TTD’s and three of our own Test Engineers! We now had the disruptive technology we had set out to create. More importantly we had the team and culture that could continue to do so for other areas of catalyst-handling.
TubeMaster®, Inc. began by offering testing as a service in 2002 using much of the same business model commonly used in cloud computing today. In 2004, we licensed Buchen a European contractor and enjoyed great success throughout Western Europe only to file a lawsuit in 2009 charging them of misappropriating our trade secrets. It turned out the industry leader who had warned us about pirates meant they existed outside of the US as well. Later in 2011, we reached a settlement with Buchen. We were ready because before that, a US-based global catalyst contractor fired a shot across our bow and sued TubeMaster®, Inc. for patent infringement! We were shocked for sure. What do you mean patent infringement? We were the last company on the planet to infringe a catalyst related patent; after all we had built our business on making new and improved things. We were well aware of the relatively small set of patents that existed and were on a well defined course of making new innovations.
Little did that plaintiff realize we had already unleashed our innovation juggernaut to capture all of the next big ideas for catalyst-handling. At the time and over the course of this lawsuit TubeMaster®, Inc. unleashed wave after wave, not of legal battles, but those of innovation. Something we understood well and which we had a huge competitive advantage.
Let’s Go Turnkey
In 2005, TubeMaster®, Inc. executed its first 100% full-turnkey catalyst change service completing the project while setting the plant record for safety and speed. Previously the plant had used a large “experienced” contractor but was not satisfied with their safety or speed so they gave us the opportunity. We completed the project in seven days some 1.5 days faster than the “experienced” contractor. With experience like that one would think there is a need to actually define just what is meant by “experienced”. Clearly, clients can no longer define what they value by experience alone. One day we became aware of a strong sense of a mantle falling upon TubeMaster®, Inc.. This mantle would be to help clients define value better. With our design/build experience, we knew we were up to it.
In fact, when the client called TubeMaster®, Inc. and first asked us to do the project, most of the TubeMaster®, Inc.staff had to be ‘gently’ persuaded to do the job since up to that point we had only done testing. Our primary reason for accepting this project was to learn and study the problems associated with catalyst change so we could then create solutions to make every step of catalyst-handling faster and with less labor. After cutting 1.5 days off of a 8.5 day project we knew we were on to something that could be huge. We knew if we could perform this well on our very first project then we figured all we needed to do was to figure out how to scale and grow. This would prove to be much more difficult than initially thought. Afterwards, we got very creative and today we can only conclude it was the stress of lawsuits along with opportunity that pushed us so hard such that as of mid 2014 we have over 65 patents and many more patents pending. Today we literally have inventions that we created which cover virtually every step of catalyst handling in multi-tubular reactors. Frankly, if we don’t have it yet, don’t worry, we will create it later today and have it to you shortly!
Look out! Innovations for furnace tubes, fixed bed reactors, convertors and others are in our Technology Pipeline™ and are coming soon to a chemical plant near you.
Since 2005, TubeMaster®, Inc. has been executing full service turnkey catalyst handling projects both domestic and foreign. Our experience is what it is, 100% prefect for safety for 11 years and nearly perfect for execution (we are human after all). Still we remain reluctant to suggest we are anything like the other “experienced” contractors. Still some clients struggle with the value proposition and become trapped by a tight deadline or even a need for immediate and emergency service with reduced options only to hire based on “low bid” and “experience”. Not surprisingly an increasing number of these clients end up also hiring TubeMaster®, Inc.. Sometimes we are called in to the rescue the client from the “experienced” contractor. We believe clients simply will not endure the efforts of so many contractors with such “experience”.
Our greatest regret in business so far is that we have done less than an excellent job of getting our message out, that TubeMaster®, Inc. offers Full Turnkey Catalyst Handling Services and is not just Testing anymore! One of our staff members always says “Men and women are created equal but “experience” much like ideas are not.” Our goal remains to ensure clients understand the value TubeMaster®, Inc. delivers.
Mastering one value challenge after the other defines TubeMaster®, Inc.’s grit which is to seek out and deliver value-added solutions for clients faster, better and with a different kind of “experience” than our competitors. Today, TubeMaster®, Inc. is the only US-based and US-owned, catalyst-handling contractor providing full turnkey services and solutions worldwide. In North America our expanding product line and services are available on a turn-key basis and with highly qualified partners outside of the US.
Having built our reputation on valued technological solutions with a 100% perfect safety since day one in 2002 we understand the link between safety and performance. While it only took us three months to develop the Tube Test Device™ it took about ten years of working in our creative culture to develop a new leadership model that allows us to lead casual ad hok labor with the same safety and engagement as we delivered on our first project in 2005 and which our clients realize on a daily basis. This program is now known as The TubeMaster®, Inc. T.E.A.M.™ Safety System™. We believe T.E.A.M.™ will be the next “Big Thing” in safety in the future. T.E.A.M.™ is delivering value today on every TubeMaster®, Inc. project.
Today, TubeMaster®, Inc. focuses it same innovative capability on other programs including:
- Charity Challenge™ – We don’t just explain to our clients about the value we deliver, we put our money where our mouth is. Our Charity Challenge™ is the ultimate loser pays.
- Innovation Pipeline™ – the process by which TubeMaster®, Inc. partners with clients to create new innovations fast. Two Innovation Pipeline™ projects were completed in 2012 the first year we launched Innovation Pipeline™ and today we have designed and built new catalyst loading hoppers we call HopperMaster™ and new Lower Reactor Head Handling Carts we call The Guillotine™ because it takes the head right off (and puts it back on even better).
- Public Speaker Service – TubeMaster®, Inc. senior staff is called on regularly to speak to various groups including: engineering, business and chemicals. Speakers are available at no charge to non-profit and community organizations. Please contact TubeMaster®, Inc. about your speaker needs.
- Student Coop/Intern – TubeMaster®, Inc. believes we all play a role in mentoring new talent both for the good of our community and for TubeMaster®, Inc.. We offer coop and intern positions to work with our team of engineers, technicians and marketers to learn and grow in a creative and cooperative culture.
For more information on the programs listed please contact us Today!