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Bethlehem company's fortunes are floating on air: Weldship Corp. is high on list as a maker of mobile hydrogen fueling trailers.
[June 18, 2006]

Bethlehem company's fortunes are floating on air: Weldship Corp. is high on list as a maker of mobile hydrogen fueling trailers.

(Morning Call, The (Allentown, PA) (KRT) Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) Jun. 18--Weldship Corp. is getting the hydrogen economy rolling -- literally.

The Bethlehem manufacturing company, which got its start making welded barges for Hudson River refineries, has emerged as the sole maker of Air Products and Chemicals' HF-150 mobile hydrogen fuelers. Air Products, of Trexlertown, leases the trailers to car companies and other customers, who use them to fill up hydrogen-powered demonstration cars at test sites.

"It's very convenient to work with another Lehigh Valley company," Dave Guro, product manager of Air Products' future energy solutions group, said in a statement.

Only about 40 stationary hydrogen fueling sites are open or planned in the United States, according to the National Hydrogen Association trade group. And, with early stations costing up to $1 million to build, a firm hydrogen network will take years to create. Mobile trailers such as the HF-150 could play an important role in supporting the road-testing of hydrogen cars.

The trailers hold 110 kilograms of hydrogen, which is enough for 30 fill-ups, according to Air Products. When the gas runs out, the trailers can be swapped out or refilled. Air Products does not comment on the price of the trailers for competitive reasons.

Hydrogen fueling trailers are basically a new adaptation of a business line Weldship has worked in for years.

The company makes, leases and sells tube trailers to Air Products and other industrial gas companies -- the familiar long truck trailers used to move oxygen, nitrogen and other bulk gases. It also makes ISO containers, which are gas tubes mounted to a rigid metal frame, that can be stacked on ships for transport around the world. Weldship provides testing services for both types of containers.

It remains to be seen how much of a sales boost the hydrogen trailers will bring Weldship. That depends on how the gas develops as a new fuel. In the meantime, officials are busy with other trends, such as growing demand from Asia for ISO containers full of electronics gases.

"That's a dramatic change from tube trailers, which were the gut of our business until three to five years ago," said Vic Pratt, vice president of sales and marketing.

It's not the first major shift in Weldship's history. The company was founded in 1946 by John Evans Jr., to make barges for New York-area refineries. As that business dwindled, the company branched out into the industrial gas industry.

Weldship, still under Evans' ownership, moved to the Lehigh Valley in the early 1970s. It bought a tube trailer maintenance facility in Hellertown, and expanded into building and leasing its own fleet.

It began leasing tube trailers to Air Products about 25 years ago, and is one of several trailer suppliers to the company, said Bill Angus, Evans' grandson and the company's vice president of operations. Weldship has more than 600 tube trailers and ISO containers today, Angus said. Other companies leasing trailers, or bringing them in for testing, include Air Liquide and Linde, industrial-gas competitors of Air Products.

Weldship had about 25 employees when Angus and partner Bob Arcieri bought it from Evans in 1990. Since then, it has expanded its Bethlehem plant and bought Texas Trailer Corp. of Gainesville, Texas, a maker of specialty trailers and ISO containers.

The company now employs 80 people in Bethlehem and 37 in Texas. Company president Arcieri and Paul Horrigan, vice president of business development and president of Texas Trailer, work from an office in the suburbs of Boston.

Weldship also attracted the attention of a Jenkintown investment firm, RAF Industries Inc., which bought an unspecified share of the business two years ago. RAF officials could not be reached for comment, but the firm's Web site says it looks to invest in proven, profitable companies. Angus and Pratt declined to comment on annual sales, but said Weldship is profitable.

Late last year, an industry directory by trade publication Gases & Welding Distributor listed 11 companies in the tube trailer business, but only two in ISO containers. Angus listed four or five companies he considers rivals, and said Weldship ranks among the fastest-growing.

"We have a close relationship with our customers," he said. "We're responsive to our customers."

Weldship's work on the HF-150 trailer began about three years ago, as an outgrowth of its long-running relationship with Air Products, Angus said.

The trailer's concept and basic design came from Air Products, officials there said. Weldship builds the chassis from scratch, then mounts the hydrogen-carrying tubes and an outside "skin" on the trailer. Weldship also handles certification and licensing of the trailers by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

"Weldship knows the kind of quality we demand when it comes to performance and safety," Air Products' Guro said.

About 12 HF-150s are being used at hydrogen-car test sites, according to Air Products.

For instance, the city of Santa Ana, Calif., is using one to fill a fleet of vehicles as part of California's extensive Hydrogen Highway project. The state is trying to build 150 to 200 hydrogen stations on major roads by 2010. The hydrogen powering cars in Santa Ana is produced at an Air Products plant in nearby Wilmington.

No HF-150s are regularly in use in Pennsylvania, which has only one hydrogen station, a permanent pump at Penn State University in State College.

Air Products officials said future HF-150 production will depend on orders.

While Weldship watches that market develop, the company is focused on building ISO containers. Asian electronics companies are demanding ever-larger amounts of specialty gases. Air Products and other companies need ways to get some of those gases from the United States to Asia, and are turning to Weldship's containers. Weldship and the gases companies both see the trend continuing for at least the next several years.

"That is a strong area of continuing business growth," Angus said. "The strongest section of the business is ISO containers today."

The tube trailer market is "pretty flat," with little demand for new trailers, Angus added.

The company's goals include new hiring, training, and keeping pace with technological developments among its clients.

"We want to stay abreast of changes our customers are going through, and be able to support them," Angus said.


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