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General Cable Makes Switch to Cellular Production

Sept. 7, 2012
Wire maker finds the real benefits from cells come when the workforce is engaged.

General Cable Corp.’s Lincoln, R.I., plant was designed to manufacture and warehouse wire and cable products. For a company that makes wire and cable products, such a facility might seem like an ideal place to operate.

But in this age of lean manufacturing, a production flow that was efficient in 1974—when the former Carol Cable Co. built the facility—isn’t so ideal.

“If you were looking at the flow of a factory 15 years ago, the flow of this factory was very good,” plant manager Mike Brown explains. “Meaning it starts at zero and goes to one. Zero is incoming material, one is compounding, and that feeds our foundation [wire], which is two. Three is cabling, and four is jacketing, packaging and shipping. Good flow.”

The problem, Brown says, is the old batch-and-queue flow created “a lot of WIP in between each one of those processes. I mean a lot,” he emphasizes.

While there was too much WIP in the old batch-and-queue format—1 foot of completed wire traveled more than 2,700 feet through the plant—the physical layout of the plant discouraged camaraderie among the operators, notes human resources manager Mary Igoe.

“They didn’t even talk to each other,” Igoe says. “They were just making wire and pushing it along to the next operation.”

All of that has changed dramatically since the facility completed the switch to cellularization in 2005.

In late 2002, the plant began reorganizing its equipment layout and establishing work cells based on copper-gauge size, compound type and product construction. In 2003, the plant’s first physical work cell—the Small-Cord Cell—was up and running.

The creation of the Small-Cord Cell produced immediate results. With previously segregated processes—foundation, cabling, jacketing and packaging—now in the same physical cell, the distance that wire traveled was reduced to less than 100 feet, and the cycle time for a finished product went from days or weeks to just hours.

Meanwhile, WIP turns doubled, scrap rates plummeted and cell members began functioning as a team.

“The cell works out great because we talk to one another and we can really see what the next process needs, what my customer [another operator within the cell] needs, and I work toward that,” says Randy Beauregard, a CV (continuous-vulcanization) operator within the Small-Cord Cell. “Previously, we used to run out of wire or colors or things like that. Now we’re a lot more on top of that, and we keep running a lot more as a result.”

The success of the Small-Cord Cell was a catalyst for the rest of the plant’s operations to go cellular. Today, the plant is organized into five physical cells, all of which have the equipment needed to make cable—from the bare copper to the finished product.

Turnover at the Lincoln plant is inordinately low, and you’d be hard-pressed to meet a first-shift employee with fewer than 30 years on the job (Beauregard, for example, is a 31-year veteran of the plant). Not lost on Brown’s management team is the fact that the workforce—and its union—easily could have balked at such a tectonic shift in its production format.

But manufacturing manager John Tremblay emphasizes that the buy-in of the workers and the union has been key to the success of the switch to cellularization.

“You can make the physical moves with the equipment, but the real benefits come when you get the associates engaged,” Tremblay says.

Josh Cable is senior editor of MH&L’s sister publication, IndustryWeek.

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