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Applying Industry 4.0 to the Cable Factory Environment

Automation practices and establishing a fully synced and integrated system are vital for any wire and cable manufacturer looking to future-proof its business.

Industry 4.0. Digitalization of modern business process.

The notion of the “smart factory” has been at the forefront of manufacturing since Germany introduced the concept of Industry 4.0 2011. The Chinese Government followed suit with its “Made in China 2025” initiative, which draws direct inspiration from Industry 4.0.

With the increasing prevalence of Industry 4.0 initiatives across all sectors, it is evident that the manufacturing world is awash with many digital enterprises and processes. As individual companies, organizations, and governments push toward a future of smart manufacturing, it is no secret that companies reluctant to embrace smart manufacturing processes risk being left behind.

This article looks at how to apply smart manufacturing in the wire and cable industry and seeks to answer questions such as:

  • Does the smart factory really suit wire and cable factories?
  • It may be a proven concept in discrete manufacturing, but what about linear industries?
  • What types of software and hardware will be needed to make a factory smart?

When we consider Industry 4.0, what do we mean?

The term, and its appeal, vary according to the country of operation. While some countries might consider embracing Industry 4.0 as the necessary bedrock of the evolving factory environment, others take a more pragmatic view on addressing future challenges.

This article uses “smart industry” and “smart manufacturing” as synonyms for Industry 4.0 or industrial transformation in the fourth industrial revolution.

A top-of-the-mind association with Industry 4.0 tends to include:

  • The purchase of new machines and equipment
  • Implementation of “big data” and artificial intelligence (AI)
  • Virtual reality (VR) simulations
  • Robotics
  • Building new factories

This article offers an alternative view to wire and cable manufacturers looking to reap the benefits of Industry 4.0. Namely, flexibility, customization, and future-proofing, but in a way that capitalizes on current assets to make them more responsive.

How relevant is Industry 4.0 to a linear industry?

There are many sectors where Industry 4.0 is commonplace. For example, within the car and mobile phone industries, automation has been an integral part of operations for some time. Part of the reason for this is that these products are created through discrete manufacturing. The car industry is a perfect example of discrete manufacturing whereby all components of a vehicle — its chassis, engine, wheels, and so on — come together to create a new item.

As most industries fall under the category of “discrete,” there has been the opportunity to develop Industry 4.0 continuously over several decades. In the wire and cable manufacturing industry, however, the manufacturing process is not discrete but linear and, as a result, where an Industry 4.0 approach is less mature. The linear approach within wire and cable manufacturing is best clarified as follows: wire and cables are less a sum of discrete individual parts that make up the whole but can be traced back to the original component, where subsequent materials and processes build upon the original component.

An added complication within the wire and cable industry is that cable production is rarely an off-the-shelf approach. In the mobile phone industry, only four stock-keeping units (SKUs) for a phone may exist. However, there could be thousands of different product iterations for the wire and cable industry.

While there may be incredibly advanced manufacturing execution systems (MES) and planning systems that are working effectively in discrete industries, they have limited applicability to the wire and cable industry. The “grab and use” nature of these systems is not always an option for cable manufacturers, at least not without investment in customization.

Every wire and cable order is different and highly customizable, raising a fascinating point: if the flexibility proposed by Industry 4.0 already exists in the cable factory environment, what use is Industry 4.0?

Industry 4.0 — the future or simply a fad?

In cables containing a copper conductor, it is estimated that some 70%-80% of cable cost can be attributed to the copper itself. Simply replacing manual labor with automated machinery will not reduce the cost of cable manufacturing significantly. In reality, if all elements of Industry 4.0 are implemented at once — big data, Artificial Intelligence (AI), robotics, and virtual reality simulations — manufacturers will suffer an increase in costs which will take a long time to recoup.

There is a danger that Industry 4.0 is seen as the only solution to building a robust factory environment that can withstand both changing industry conditions and increased competitor activity. This might be true in the long term. Still, Industry 4.0 does not have to be implemented quickly with an investment in costly and highly automated systems — it should be viewed as an ongoing series of developments.

A better starting point, perhaps, in identifying an appropriately staged approach within wire and cable manufacturing could be focusing on the perennial problem that many in the industry face: how to address human error. A single mistake by a design engineer entering the wrong product code on a production line can cost tens of thousands of dollars.

The question for wire and cable manufacturers then is to ask: at what point do these mistakes become too costly and unacceptable to the business? Building the cost of these mistakes in as tolerances — on the basis that a tailored cable MES program will alert the machine operator to the error in a timely fashion — may be more cost-effective than investing in expensive automation processes that eradicate the errors. Process-based methodologies for effective project management, such as PRINCE2, may present useful reading on tolerances and exceptions.

A smart approach to a smart factory

Before a factory can conceive of becoming a smart Industry 4.0 factory, it needs to assess its current situation fully.

Observations of wire and cable manufacturers across the globe point to four key stages:

  1. Rationalization
  2. Standardization
  3. Automation
  4. Smartification

We will now look at each of these in turn.


Firstly, the status quo needs to be assessed. In other words, all factory processes, including reporting, communication channels, and decision-making, must be logical, correct, and proven to work. This is critical. If this step is flawed, it sets an inaccurate foundation for the smart factory, and the resulting direction of travel is consequently wrong.

Of course, there may be room for improvement, and there may be issues the factory manager is fully aware of. A common issue, for example, is that machinery is outdated, yet its replacement is financially prohibitive. Not addressing such issues at this stage does not necessarily present a problem; it can be easily addressed at stage two or three.

Undetected issues, however, present alarming problems. A lack of knowledge that a performance issue exists provides a false confidence that operations are working well when this is not the case.


With certainty about how things are working and knowing where improvements might be made, factory managers can turn their attention to standardizing their processes.

Implementing a standard operating procedure (SOP) — a set of step-by-step instructions compiled to help workers carry out complex routine operations — can help to achieve efficiency, high-quality output, and uniform performance. It also reduces miscommunication and improves compliance with industry regulations.

When implementing SOPs across the entire factory environment, a benchmark can be obtained to clearly indicate where standards need to improve.

It may seem counterintuitive that, on a journey towards the flexibility provided by Industry 4.0, standardizing workflows across the entire factory may stifle flexibility. In fact, truly effective standardization needs only be implemented in around 80% of processes, leaving the remaining 20% to exceptions.

It is estimated that only the top 50 of some 5,000 wire and cable manufacturers in China have reached the standardization stage. Perhaps there has been little incentive to progress beyond the rationalisation stage since demand has outstripped supply in the Chinese market for some time. Inevitably, this has led, in some cases, to a compromise in quality, and as global competition intensifies, this short-sighted outlook has led to many such factories facing closure.

Without first standardizing processes, however, it is near impossible to consider where benefits might be derived at stage three of automation.

Turning to Europe, with the exception of Germany, many European countries are less convinced by Industry 4.0. Of course, it requires ongoing investment, and that demands a compelling case. Why change if a cable manufacturer can sustain a profit by operating at Industry Stage 2.5? The risk is that this short-sighted approach will not be an adequate solution as the rest of the market develops.

As with the first stage of rationalisation, it is recommended that an audit be undertaken to create a baseline at the standardisation stage — after all, if a factory does not have a recognized standard in place, how will it know the actual cost of changing its approach and whether automation will truly derive benefits?

When conducting such an audit, wire and cable manufacturers might want to consider whether:

  • All machines and sensors have digital input/output (I/O) — this is critical in capturing real-time feedback.
  • The running history of all machines has digital log-overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) and traceability. For most of the factory’s management team, the shopfloor represents the black box of product design, operations, finance, and sales. It is critical that a cable MES can assess performance.
  • Operators have the appropriate manufacturing skills.
  • The following all exist digitally: wire and cable designs, manufacturing instructions, testing results and POs.
  • All major systems across the company, such as enterprise resource planning (ERP), warehouse management system (WMS), manufacture resource planning (MRP), product design management (PDM) and manufacturing execution system (MES), are or have the potential to be, integrated together.
  • There are members of the team who understand the factory as a whole and who understand the concept of Industry 4.0. While each manager or supervisor will be an expert in their own area, there must be a resource (be it an individual or a team) that is able to judge whether standardization will be of benefit to the factory in its entirety.
  • The company has a continuous improvement program in place, such as Lean Production, Kaizen, MUDA or single-minute exchange of dies (SMED).


For discrete manufacturing industries, such as the automobile and mobile phone industries, the gap between their reality and ambition in achieving a fully automated factory may be narrowing at a breathtaking rate and is defined by their cutting-edge approach to big data, AI, communications, and decentralization.

In the wire and cable industry, however, where customization is key, will it ever truly be necessary or beneficial to use robotic arms, for example? In the current cable factory environment, one human operator can easily service five machines. For the robotic arm, the ratio is only 1:1.

That said, automation in the wire and cable factory has a place and should be considered by all manufacturers when looking to future-proof business.

Having systems where software such as ERP, CRM, MES etc., can all sync together to give real-time data feedback is essential for any manufacturer looking to gain a competitive advantage and understand the effectiveness of their business. The real-time, robust data obtained from automation can then be used to drive the digital smartification of systems.


As established above, smartification does not have to equal full automation. Instead, it should be considered process-driven digital improvements, which, once implemented, are continually assessed and improved on by human intervention.

Vast amounts of data already exist, often towards manufacturing processes and analytics procedures. When faced with countless variables, a human’s ability to detect insights, changing patterns and errors manually is compromised.

To address these challenges, reliance is increasingly placed on AI and machine learning and the subsequent data collected and fed back into machines.


The wire and cable industry should not discount implementing smart factory processes but should seriously consider doing so in a way that is different from other industries.

Essential automation practices and establishing a fully synced and integrated system are vital for any wire and cable manufacturer looking to future-proof its business and fully understand how efficient its manufacturing processes are.

Reducing downtime of machines, reducing scrap and waste, and identifying errors and bottlenecks early on, can all be achieved through automation and smartification. Systems can be implemented alongside existing assets so the move towards a smart factory can be done cost-effectively with speed and little disruption.

To discuss this topic further, please contact us.


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