The term “smart factory” is everywhere in the world of manufacturing. While many might question the logic behind embracing smart processes, there is a real danger that avoidance could prove costly to long-term productivity and profitability.
Manufacturers who choose not to embrace smart factory processes risk being left behind by their competitors and manufacturing at a slower, sub-standard and more costly pace.
This article focuses on cable design processes and quotation procedures. It looks at how software can be implemented cost-effectively, speedily and in a streamlined process, bringing a fast return on investment, maximized profitability and increased productivity, examining:
- The business benefits of going smart.
- An overview of the journey towards “smart factory” and Industry 4.0.
- Software developed specifically to solve cable design and quotation issues.
- How to save time and money while improving efficiencies in the cable factory.
- How to improve the use of human resources and reduce human errors.
Industry 4.0 – the future or simply a fad?
It is estimated that 70%-80% of cables that contain a copper conductor can be attributed to copper alone. In these cases, 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 (otherwise known as “smart factory”) are implemented at once — big data, Artificial Intelligence (AI), robotics and virtual reality simulations — manufacturers will, in reality, suffer an increase in costs which will take 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, is to identify an appropriately staged (or phased) approach within wire and cable manufacturing. This could be by focusing on the perennial problem that many in the industry face: how to address human error.
For instance, 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?
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.
There are countless approaches and solutions available to manufacturers looking to move forward with smart processes and procedures. However, before the commercial advantages of individual solutions can be studied, it is worth highlighting the high-level business process advantages that can be gained.
Business benefits of going smart
It’s easy to understand why many view the adoption of smart factory processes as solutions to improve engineering processes and shop floor procedures. However, before we focus on a system that brings these benefits to the shop floor, it is essential to look at the bigger picture and see how smart factory integrations positively impact all elements of a business.
- Cost reduction – One of the most costly occurrences in the factory environment is waste or scrap. Specifically, not identifying an issue with non-conformance until it is too late. With 70%-80% of cable cost relating to raw material alone, any optimization in this area presents an immediate opportunity to improve the bottom line.
- Error reduction – With increased competition, the margin for profitability may already be slim, and a manufacturer cannot afford any issues that add to the sale cost through rework or late delivery penalties. The loss of a customer’s trust and confidence in a supplier’s ability to meet contractual requirements is perhaps the most costly and long-lasting of all.
- Competitive edge – As well as retaining more customers, companies investing in smart factory processes can expect to win additional business. The capabilities offered by digitization, data and software reassure customers that they are partnering with a technologically-advanced partner able to drive down end-product costs through optimum resource management and with the highest production visibility.
Software dedicated to cable design and quotation processes
Reducing downtime of machines, reducing scrap and waste, and identifying errors and bottlenecks early on, can all be achieved through automation and “smartification.” In addition, systems can be implemented alongside existing assets, so moving towards a smart factory can be made cost-effectively at a pace suitable for specific budgets and infrastructures.
Let’s examine how dedicated design and quotation software, developed specifically for the wire and cable industry, can bring tangible benefits through four main advantages:
Placing control in the hands of the engineers and designers for greater cost-control
One benefit of cable design software is an accurate understanding of what it takes to produce a cable before manufacturing begins.
Achieving accurate designs and a complete understanding of costs is paramount, and cable designs and customer quotations can be produced accurately through specific software programs.
Real-time quotes, including variable-length cost calculations and up-to-the-minute raw material costs, are an added benefit in preventing over or under-pricing.
In addition, the hugely valuable “what if?” scenarios for individual designs allow manufacturers to see what impact different scenarios, such as a change of material or routing, would have.
Access to process details such as setup, run time, speed and cost has advantages in that schedules, staff rotas and machine allocation can be planned precisely.
Central management of all designs
A robust software system that allows for centralized management of all designs provides many benefits that positively impact all departments of any manufacturing plant. By having to no longer depend on software developers to define what and how outputs are calculated, software such as CableBuilder allows teams to set up specific standards and rules according to their needs.
Additional design process benefits include:
- The entire design structure and process is accessible via a design tree.
- The ability to design from scratch or copy-and-design (“Same as but…”).
- Design alternatives allow alternate raw material suppliers and machine routings across plants.
- Design versioning – who did what, when and why.
- Bill-of-material and machine routing into Excel, allowing what ifs.
- Mass extraction of design parameters and materials into Excel.
- Mass update feature via a software module or Excel uploads.
- Mass design creation feature from Excel.
- Set up cable datasheets to be automatically generated from the design onto specific templates.
- Catalog generation.
Centralized design knowledge achieved through software can save time and significantly improve efficiencies. More often than not, in plants where smart factory software doesn’t play a role, design knowledge is distributed across Excel sheets, certain individuals and homegrown databases resulting in information silos that bring with them a whole host of potential issues. Dedicated software can capture the data and knowledge from these silos and make it accessible to the right people at the right time.
Creating a system that harnesses existing expertise and the invaluable knowledge of crucial personnel allows for a bespoke setup that works to specific standards and helps to achieve targets.
Solutions tailored to individual businesses
Implementing a customizable and flexible cable design and quotation software solution ensures that it is tailored to meet the specific demands of the factory. Modular licensing across design, quotation, manufacturing and QA modules ensures manufacturers have a system relevant to their daily processes.
Preconfigured formulae ensure consistency across teams to guarantee customer and industry standards are adhered to. Furthermore, the subsequent savings in time a cost by avoiding errors add significantly to the success of a project. In addition, a straightforward amendment to one project element will also implement the update across all relevant stages, eliminating costly errors.
Software that provides read-only licenses gives full transparency of designs to licensed users who can see the progress of an order at a glance without having the power to amend. This feature is particularly useful for management and others, such as IT and finance departments.
The manufacturing process can also be simulated within the software, giving real scrap value against total lengths. This vital element will guarantee that costs are accurate and under or over-pricing on customer quotations is avoided.
Highly customized reports offer superior control abilities at every stage of the manufacturing process, allowing for staged approvals, such as before finalizing designs and quotations.
Add the capability to comply with stringent international standards and safety laws into the mix, and it’s evident that intelligent software is key for design, quality and cost control.
Supporting accreditation from independent authorities
Adherence to international standards is a prerequisite for selling into many markets. Therefore, having a system that helps with compliance is of great benefit. Features include:
- Access to a complete history of designs and quotations available through version control.
- Recording and retaining quality records, for example, laboratory test results. Showing laboratory test history can help achieve more accreditations, which means the cables can be branded with the necessary certification, which is often a prerequisite for selling.
Delivering accredited, accurate products against customer orders will positively impact customer service levels resulting in loyal customers.
Saving time and money while improving efficiency
Improved efficiencies allow engineering teams to do more with their existing resources.
An all-in-one system provides full functionality to create and maintain designs, quotations, quality records and manufacturing simulations with personalized rules enabling engineers and designers to:
- Accurately design and quote in one system, negating the need for multiple design tools.
- Perform mass updates quickly and with ease.
- Link technical reports and data sheets to customer quotations ensuring quick and complete responses to customer queries.
By preconfiguring setups and having automated rules within a user-friendly system, quick and accurate design creation is easily achieved, resulting in a faster design process.
Additional benefits include:
- Technical details and datasheet reports can be set up and automated against international design standards, negating the need to generate these offline.
- Product brochures can be set up against product types, negating the need to use external companies for brochure production.
Improved efficiencies, in turn, directly impact the speed taken to respond to the customer. Speeding up the response time creates the perfect environment to forge better customer relationships, adding significant value.
Quicker and enhanced quotations
Industry feedback reports that dedicated software can significantly reduce the time taken to generate a customer quotation thanks to the availability of all information in one system, increasing quotation capacity.
A CableBuilder customer satisfaction survey discovered:
- One customer reduced the time the engineering department to prepare designs, datasheets and quotations from five days to one day.
- The Designs module reduced product creation and data exporting time from three weeks to 30 minutes in another factory.
Quotations can be produced subject to individual company rules that ensure designs are ready to quote with precision in terms of cost and delivery times.
Having data within a structured database allows manufacturers to embrace smart factory processes further and advance their journey to Industry 4.0.
Cable design and quotation software produce data within a structured database, available in a format ideal for integration into other sophisticated, automated systems, such as manufacturing execution systems (MES) and enterprise resource planning software (ERP).
Integrating with manufacturing execution systems (MES)
An MES presents a real opportunity to help manufacturers achieve the next level of product quality and savings in materials, time and cost.
MES operates in real time to enable the control of multiple elements of the production process:
- Order execution – Ensure schedule adherence by delivery to length, on time, while minimizing WIP and waste.
- Production performance – Maximize production by minimizing downtimes running at target speeds while producing a consistently good quality product.
- Material management – Avoid production delays by ensuring that material is available at the correct location, in the right quantities and at the right time.
- Product quality – Minimize inferior quality products by implementing a robust quality management system that immediately identifies inferior products and stops adding value.
MES, especially ones created specifically for the wire and cable industry, such as CableMES, present a significant step-change in manufacturing when combined with other software and automated systems.
Through its integration with cable design software, MES controls the Quality Plan at each production stage. If relevant, the parameters required to be tested/checked, with upper and lower tolerances, are all presented to the operator automatically at the correct time. Through MES, the consistency of Quality Plans across all processes is ensured, and the collection of Quality Plan data is enforced through best practice.
Furthermore, MES will provide direct access to the machine operator to the latest Manufacturing Specifications for manufacturing products on a specific machine. This means the operator will always have the most up-to-date technical information on producing every product on his machine.
CableMES has been developed specifically for wire and cable manufacturers. It closes the loop between high-level business processes and shopfloor functionalities.
CableMES sits between the business systems, e.g., ERP and the plant systems, such as Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) and Process Control, providing the most efficient and cost-effective operational and production environment possible.
Integrating with enterprise resource planning (ERP) software
Cable design and quotation software can be fully integrated into many current and legacy ERP systems offering another automation level that will bring tangible benefits to users.
Often likened to the human body’s nervous system, ERP is defined as the ability to seamlessly integrate multiple business processes into a single platform to simultaneously boost efficiencies, drive down costs and win more business.
Integrating data, including financials, supply chain, operations, commerce, reporting and manufacturing, into a centralized database enables real-time analysis of the entire process.
ERP gives organizations the information they need, when they need it, in a timely and understandable format. If modifications or changes occur at any stage in the entire business process, the rest of the system is alerted and changed accordingly, resulting in efficient and well-informed decisions.
The essential functions of an ERP are:
- Data management
- Production planning
- Sales and purchasing
- Order fulfillment and delivery
Cable design software, such as CableBuilder, helps simplify the complex management of cable design data from the initial design concept to deliver the full bill of materials directly to the ERP.
Seamlessly managing cable product data through the typical workflow milestones of design, customer quotation, ordering, production, and quality assurance, specific cable design software offers a real advantage further strengthened when integrated with ERP.
Improving the use of human resources and reducing costly human errors
Cable design software supports moving away from manual work to automated processes. This frees up human resources and removes the need to recruit additional team members, as the time saved can be better used elsewhere in the business.
Add to this the significant advantage gained by capturing the expertise and knowledge of vital staff members in a digital format. Should such staff members be unable to work or decide to leave the business, their know-how is not lost with them.
Pre-defined and verified formulas provided by cable design software help reduce all types of visible and hidden human errors. Costing, machine routing, material procurement, and order placement processes are assisted by eliminating human error using pre-defined and verified formulas.
Data input errors on traditional, paper-based systems can have a catastrophic impact on subsequent design and manufacturing workflow steps, so reducing or eliminating such errors is commercially advantageous.
Cable design and manufacturing solutions
When presented with benefits such as those discussed in this article, deciding to embrace smart factory processes is not difficult.
Enterprise-level design and costing software, CableBuilder Enterprise, is now used in hundreds of factories worldwide to simplify the complex management of cable-design data, from the initial design concept to delivering the full bill of materials directly to the ERP system.
Manufacturing execution system (MES) for wire and cable
We further aim to support wire and cable manufacturers to effectively plan, manage and control the manufacturing process with the cable manufacturing execution system, CableMES. CableMES uses the latest industrial Internet of Things (IoT) technology to optimize large-scale cable manufacturing operations.
Conclusion and takeways
There are many commercial benefits of embracing smart factory processes
The commercial benefits of embracing smart factory processes are multifold. First, if not eliminated, scrap and rework scenarios resulting from non-conformance or human error are reduced. Secondly, a competitive edge is gained partly due to having the ability to drive down end-product costs through optimum resource management and to generate faster, more accurate designs and quotes.
Harness knowledge and skills of the existing team
By moving away from risk-laden, in-house paper-based systems, manufacturers can harness the knowledge and skills of key individuals. Without the security of a sophisticated digital design system, the know-how of a vital team member might be lost if they leave the company — this could prove catastrophic should the ability to create designs be lost when the person leaves.
The transition to a smart factory is a journey
Typically, advanced technology and connected automated systems are considered the only solution to building a robust factory environment that can withstand changing industry conditions and increased competitor activity. This viewpoint might be valid in the long term, but several fast, cost-effective solutions can make a big difference in the short term.
While it might be a daunting prospect initially, the first step all manufacturers should take is to look at the bigger picture and visualize a future with a host of integrated technology that enables greater flexibility, efficiency and productivity. This exercise will help determine their unique requirements and help break down the project into smaller, more manageable, affordable steps.
The first step of the journey is to transform information into digital data
One way to kick-start the automation process is to look at ways to translate information into digital data, analyze it, and then drive it back into the system.
Accessing product information on demand makes it easy to see the benefits that manufacturers can gain from replacing in-house, traditional paper-based systems with the first stage of automation and digitalization.
Design and quotation software for total control
Dedicated software that focuses on fast, accurate design and quote generation puts the control firmly in the hands of the engineers. Complete control with central designs and greater transparency ensures tailored solutions deliver quality products that meet changing industry and customer demands.
Integrate data between systems
More complex design software, such as ERP and MES systems, all of which integrate seamlessly with CableBuilder, can be considered further down the line when the rewards of the initial automation phase are earned.
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