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Profitable Wire and Cable Operations

Effective operational management should be a prerequisite for any wire and cable plant. A manual approach can provide benefits, but these can be extended much further using digital tools.

Business analytics intelligence concept, financial charts to analyze profit and finance.

Wire and cable operations are some of the most complex operational environments across the manufacturing sector. The philosophy of “design for manufacture” is fundamental. Integrating product design, process design and demonstrated process efficiencies is vital if the desired profitability is achieved consistently.

Wasteful and inefficient operations erode profit, reduce competitiveness and halt growth. Waste — such as poor efficiency or long changeover times — causes extended lead times for which the chronic and systemic response is increased stocks. Fixed costs rise, and business is lost on price. The reaction is often to reduce sales margin, resulting in unprofitable business, and the spiral to closure begins to run out of control. Wasteful use of materials has the same effect.

Effective operational management should be a prerequisite for any wire and cable plant. A manual approach can provide significant benefits, but these can be extended further using integrated digital tools. Sharing digital data with the business and technical databases and systems can improve decision-making, planning and estimating. Waste can be significantly and systematically eliminated. Manufacturing can become a competitive advantage rather than a strategic weakness. Lower prices and reduced lead times can increase market share, growing the top line. When driven by organic improvement, this boosts profit.

When combined, all of these improve the certainty and repeatability of performance and profitability. It outlines a road map for applying tools and systems that create strategic, competitive advantage from operations and ensure a timely payback.

This article describes:

  • Generic types of cable operations that exist and their innate complexities.
  • How software programs manage these complexities; CableBuilder Enterprise and CableBuilder Go for design and technical management, and CableMES for manufacturing execution.
  • Typical wastes are evident in these operations, and software programs record them.
  • Methodologies for improving performance.
  • Best-practice management processes.
  • A road map to achieve enhanced competitiveness.

The complexities of wire and cable

Product categorization

Wire and cable operations are classified as semi-continuous process batch manufacturing. They are capitally intensive, both fixed and working capital.

Raw materials are converted, and semi-finished components are combined and further converted in a series of independent manufacturing processes.

Products can be characterized classically as runners, repeaters and strangers. Wire and cable factories tend to either be specialist plants producing a narrow range of runners or generalist, producing a wider spectrum of designs that feature as repeaters and strangers.

Whether for energy, telecommunications or data, the runners, repeaters and strangers categorization holds true.

CableBuilder Enterprise stores all of the designs for a company’s cables in a single, searchable database that date stamps records and tracks the activity of users. This provides a valuable repository of historical, technical knowledge.

Length management

Length is a critical parameter in any wire and cable factory. Producing in single, long, continuous lengths aids productivity in plants producing runners and is a key characteristic in the production of repeaters and strangers, which may be single custom lengths or multiple, varied custom lengths. The constraints of drum size and the weight of filled drums require careful integration between the quotation process, production planning, manufacturing practices and final despatch.

When the variability of manufacture, including the impact of quality defects or process problems, it is easy to see how performance can be impacted.

Length confuses many off-the-shelf manufacturing execution systems (MES). For example, 1,258m of manufactured product is not a discrete, single item but 1,258 pieces connected in a single length. CableMES tracks (at the level of individual length) all sub-components and finished products throughout the manufacturing process. It records necessary parameters — either automatically or by manual entry. CableMES is also designed specifically to manage length as it also tracks when 1,258m becomes two lengths of 600 and 628m, as planned in CableBuilder Enterprise. These steps are all handled during processing while retaining full traceability of all the associated data.


Runners are generally manufactured to stock and sold in standard lengths. They are products that are typically manufactured frequently or even continuously. The market is highly competitive, and maximizing productivity, minimizing throughput times, and achieving the leanest outcome regarding materials consumed are prerequisites for remaining competitive. Tying up the minimum working capital and enabling pricing to respond effectively to changing raw material prices are key sources of added advantage. Quality tends to employ statistical trending to manage process variability. Cost and value engineering are key techniques.

Maximizing asset productivity:

  • Process speeds to be maximized for each stage of manufacture and maintained at consistently high levels.
  • Asset utilization to be high with a minimum of downtime. Changeovers must be slick and color changes on extruders are usually automatic and on the fly.
  • Scrap needs to be minimized. Short lengths of excess cable or components should be minimized, bleed from extruders kept as limited as possible, and quality failures of batches eliminated.
  • The proven measure applied worldwide to manufacturing is overall equipment effectiveness (OEE). The simplest way to calculate OEE is the ratio of fully productive time to planned production time.

    Fully productive time is manufacturing only good parts as fast as possible (ideal cycle time) with no stop time.

    OEE = (good count × ideal cycle time) / planned production time.
  • Clear definitions need to be developed locally for these ratios. They need to be incorporated into assumptions for quotation and planning, and the actual performance needs to be measured and any variances addressed.

CableBuilder Enterprise can contain any process parameters that the design, quality and process engineers require. These can be displayed to operators on automatically-generated route cards or on screens if CableMES is implemented. These parameters can also be fed directly to PLCs if this level of integration has been implemented.

CableMES records all the data required to generate OEEs and produces OEEs automatically for individual machines, groups of machines, specific routings, and the whole facility if required.

Labor productivity can be less of an issue for factories producing runners as it is such a small element of total cost, and savings can be easily lost if machines are idle and awaiting operator.

However, operators should be occupied with value-adding activity for a significant proportion of their shifts. Operators can mind more machines, undertake quality measurements, perform routine maintenance, and complete changeovers/raw material replenishment/drum loading and off-loading. Truly competitive plants use their operators effectively. Importantly:

Lean use of raw materials requires the minimization of two waste streams: scrap and over-usage.

  • Scrap is generally created at start-up/changeover but can also be due to non-conforming finished product or short lengths.
  • Over-usage includes materials in a finished piece of cable over and above what is required to meet the specifications or customers’ requirements. This can be too great a diameter, radial thickness, or excess length. In runners, specifications tend to have been honed over many years, and the internal design baseline needs to be clearly defined, if not challenged. Process variation needs to be minimized.
  • CableMES enables all scrap to be booked for each production order, whether head waste or scrap length.

Repeaters and strangers

In contrast to runners, repeaters and strangers are manufactured less frequently — possibly monthly, annually or even less frequently — including one-offs. A stranger is a custom design for a specific customer requirement and is typically a “to be made” (TBM). Repeaters that are in the catalog may be provided from stock that is replenished routinely.

Issues such as cost and price can be of a lower priority than the availability of product on time. “Right first time” and on-time delivery are most important. Profit margins tend to be higher for repeaters and strangers, giving some tolerance for unexpected costs caused by waste. However, the same principles of efficiency are applied with a different emphasis.

Maximizing asset productivity tends to focus on reducing changeover times as more variety has to be manufactured. This improves availability and reduces scrap. CableMES facilitates the recording and categorization of downtime by operators, e.g., changeover time.

Production planning, particularly sequencing, can play a role. Cables may have common components, even though the final designs may differ. Maximizing the batch sizes and lengths can dramatically impact waste and lead times since semi-finished products can reduce lead times. CableMES enables a supervisor to allocate jobs in a specific order to a machine and to combine lengths when appropriate.

Labor productivity can take second place in asset productivity. Teams of operators may work together to minimize changeover times on bottleneck equipment. Operators generally have to be more skilled and capable of operating a wider variety of plants and equipment. Planning and scheduling are important skills for production and shift management.

Lean use of raw materials is potentially less crucial as estimators may have added allowances (diameter, thickness and length) and designers may not have minimized their designs — they almost certainly won’t have been value-engineered as this would potentially compromise “right first time.”

However, consuming the planned amount of materials, or less, maintains or improves the profitability of an order. Ensuring that nothing is done to create a scrap length of cable is the priority, as the costs of rework or remake will likely incur a loss.

CableMES monitors, and records selected quality parameters developed in CableBuilder Enterprise for a specific product. The actual values are recorded in the system by the operator, who is prompted to do it. Any non-conforming lengths are automatically quarantined in CableMES, which systematically prompts corrective actions. So, operators are made aware of the critical parameters and any variances, and the non-conforming product has to be released before use — stopping non-conformances at the source before they cause downstream inefficiencies.

Methodologies for improving performance

Setting strategic and operational objectives

Hoshin Kanri, or X charts, are a tool that enables a business to set and cascade strategic objectives. The Executive team usually completes the company X chart process, usually annually. This may, for example, include an aim to achieve a reduction in operating cost or unit cost or an improvement in efficiency — for example, an increased OEE, which it may track as a strategic key performance indicator (KPI). This strategic objective is cascaded to the business’s second-level teams (e.g., technical, purchasing, production, quality and maintenance), who assess it and set an operational objective contributing to the strategic one. The second-level teams work out how to measure their contributions with their own KPIs. For example, to improve the availability element of OEE, the maintenance team may choose to reduce response times to breakdowns by 50%.

Once completed, the X charts of the second-level teams are assessed and their impact/contribution to the strategic objective can be modeled. If satisfactory, the second-level charts may be approved.

For example, once Production has an approved X chart, cascading to production cells and targets can be set and approved. In this way, it is possible to create a linked set of KPIs that move the company forward in the direction and at the rate it requires. Some of these objectives could be used in CableMES as targets enabling variance reporting and alarms to be implemented. This supports the development of visual controls with, for example, a supervisor receiving an alarm message when OEE drops below a certain level or an unacceptable quantity of scrap has been produced.


The Lean manufacturing toolkit applies to all type of wire and cable manufacturing. The tools deployed are often manual ones:

  • Short-interval control (SIC) sheets for monitoring production and waste at each machine and during each shift.
  • Manually populated databases for collating, analyzing and reporting information about productivity and efficiency reported on SIC sheets.
  • Applying the Single Minute Exchange of Dies (SMED) methodology reduces changeover times on bottleneck or highly utilized machines and reduces the scrap produced at a changeover.
  • Reporting and tracking all reactive and planned maintenance, including manual time stamping of requests and close-outs.
  • Analyzing downtime data, identifying priorities and their root causes. This could involve small group activities of multi-disciplined teams.

CableBuilder Enterprise and CableMES

The implementation of a systems approach can lead to significant efficiency improvements. The real-time nature of the data collection and the ability to alarm instantly can lead to quickly resolving problems and avoiding unnecessary inefficiency. The communication of technical data to the shopfloor via CableBuilder Enterprise and Cable MES, and then back to technical via data collection, is incredibly powerful. It supports right first time, traceability, trending, reporting and analysis. Supervisors can change priorities with a few clicks, and production teams can develop more insight into their performance. Compliance can be embedded, and nonconformances managed systematically.

Managerial framework for managing operations

Elements of a managerial framework

The fundamental elements of a managerial framework are:

  • Clear prioritization of objectives, hence KPIs. Presentation of data versus historical performance, targets and trends.
  • The development of multi-level KPIs that roll up to top-level, highlight indicators that facilitates drill-down to understand variances.
  • A data collection and data processing capability that enables relevant, raw information to be gathered and processed effectively to produce timely information for action and review by management and supervisors.
  • Automatic alarm generation if key parameters go out of tolerance. For example, the OEE of the production critical path falls below the target level.
  • A well-established review process that is adhered to diligently and adds value to the operations management: per shift, daily, weekly and monthly.
  • A framework of meetings/reviews that lead to focused actions, be they short-term corrective actions or longer-term improvements.
  • A visual management process. All the above should be on display and available to relevant staff who should understand it.

Manual data collection and processing

Paper reports can be easily designed and formatted to provide control and reporting capabilities. Short interval control (SIC) sheets can provide invaluable information within and after a shift. Process capability charts can provide data on quality performance and trends.

These manual control mechanisms are effective when coupled with the active supervision that can accompany a style of “management by walking about.” If no in-shift review occurs, they are typically used purely as reporting mechanisms. Collating these sheets and processing data typically occurs at the end of a shift. It can be the role of the shift leader, the operators, or an administrator. If visual control boards are used, it tends to be production staff completing the analysis. If electronic means are being used, it is often an administrator, production control and/or quality staff.

Custom spreadsheets, or in more advanced and stable situations, stand-alone databases, may be used. These can support the production of reports and the generation of trends. Feedback on performance to production and design analysts tends to be periodic, often annually, when manufacturing standards are updated. This process ensures that cost estimating is based on current performance.

Digital management

Machinery used in the wire and cable industry comprises many control and instrumentation hardware types. Often the machine control is proprietary to the equipment’s original equipment manufacturer (OEM).

For example, an extrusion line and the instrumentation are often from various OEMs, for example, diameter, eccentricity and spark detectors. The connection of the production line with the internal information system network is often limited. Quite often, a terminal next to a machine, or group of machines, enables operators to receive and update the status of production orders; or paper updates are processed in a production office. Digital management requires an overhaul of the hierarchy of the systems being used in the business. Typically, a manufacturing execution system is interfaced with or integrated with individual equipment control systems on manufacturing lines. Integration with the company’s business systems, including the technical database, also ensues.

Digital management also enables the real-time presentation of information on various devices. This can improve the response of operational staff to an evolving situation. Production reports can be available automatically, immediately improving the efficiency and speed of the process of management review.

The combination of X charts, with the application of CableBuilder Enterprise and CableMES can create a digital operational management capability that a business can apply to create a competitive advantage.

Creating a competitive advantage in manufacturing

Creating an effective competitive strategy

An effective strategy, as outlined below, will comprise several tools. Software plays a key role in the structured attainment of long-term competitive advantage that builds credibility and incrementally improves profitability.

  • A review of the efficiency and effectiveness of existing operations to highlight opportunities and priorities.
  • The development of a three to five-year operational strategy that supports the attainment of agreed strategic objectives.
  • The roll-out of operational objectives and periodic support in the review of progress.
  • The development of an investment strategy in manufacturing systems and a plan for its realization.
  • Tailored education, training and coaching in the application of CableBuilder Enterprise to improve the management of cable design and technical compliance.
  • The development and implementation of operational improvement strategies for wire and cable facilities.
  • The operation of effective management control and reporting system.
  • The use of CableMES to provide digital manufacturing capability.

The benefits of gaining control are considerable. In a poorly managed, uncontrolled production environment, OEE can typically be 50% below its desired level. Typically, OEE in a cable operation — covering all major process operations — is 30%-35% in an uncontrolled situation. This can be elevated to between 45% and 60% depending on the situation and the denominators that are applied: doubling the volume of production made or capacity available, with no increase in costs.

Focus on scrap is usually quite well developed as it is very visible — skips inside and outside a plant. A consistent review and trending of granular data over a period can focus efforts to reduce it. Manual recording, either on paper or into a system, can support this.

A one-off focus on over-usage can save between 5% and 15% of total raw material costs in an environment of previously poor focus. Reducing variability and honing designs can typically save 5% more.

Digital versus manual data collection facilitates real-time performance communication to a wide range of personnel, which prompts speedier responses to immediate variances and situations. It can also collect and process more data, providing additional data for engineers and production staff. Trends can be analyzed and root causes discovered.

CableBuilder and CableMES are cable design and manufacturing solutions specifically designed for wire and cable operations. The innate complexities of cable operations are managed automatically within its products. Installed in many facilities worldwide, these solutions are rapidly becoming the go-to approach for systematically managing and improving these complex environments.

Robust marketing strategy

Creating a strong brand image highlighting your products and services’ successes and communicating with existing and potential customers all help retention and acquisition campaigns. Generating qualified sales leads through publicity and other marketing channels will certainly create a strong base to build future business strategies.

Using PR and advertising opportunities, creating a strong presence on appropriate social media platforms and attending industry events, all offer opportunities to further enhance the reputation of your business and your staff.

Supply chain optimization

Another way to maximize profitability is to pay attention to your supply chain. The benefits this monitoring brings can help lessen future supply disruptions and ensure the quantity and quality of raw materials needed to achieve and maintain efficient manufacturing processes are not threatened.

Known and unknown risks

Keeping a close eye on predicted market changes, quality requirements, the political landscape and even internal developments is a must. These will help you plan future strategies, ensure appropriate resources are in place, and maintain access to quality raw materials.

The global pandemic had significant, unforeseen effects on most industries, and the many lingering uncertainties within numerous supply chains might continue to pose a threat. Continual monitoring and keeping abreast of daily news and developments will ensure you are at the forefront of decision-making.

If the pandemic and political disruptions have taught us one thing from a manufacturing perspective, it is that contingency plans need to be in place to quickly and efficiently deal with future breaks within the supply chain, new industry regulations, fluctuations in exchange rates, changing trade sanctions, and logistical regulations and restrictions.

In conclusion, awareness, planning and having access to robust insight and data are key and will help future-proof your business and maximize profit considerably.


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