General Cable Corp. - Altoona Plant: IW Best Plants Profile 2009

Dec. 10, 2009
Competing With the World: With savvy market moves and a passion for continuous improvement, the General Cable Altoona plant is meeting the competition head on and winning.

General Cable Corp. - Altoona Plant, Altoona, Pa.

Employees: 276, union

Total Square Footage: 198,000

Primary Product/market: Automotive ignition wire sets

Start-up: 1988

Achievements: IW Best Plant Winner in 2003; ISO/TS 16949:2002 certified in 2006; 99.98% first-pass yield for finished products; zero total OSHA recordable incidents for 12 months ending November 2009; AutoZone 2009 Extra Miler top vendor award

Though tucked midway between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg, General Cable's Altoona, Pa., plant is on the forefront of global manufacturing competition. As plant manager Ken Smith wrote in a recent employee newsletter, "We all see the challenges: not just with the current economy but with a declining market and the fact that our competitors are now producing in low-cost regions such as Mexico and sourcing their materials directly from low-cost producers such as China."

What makes the Altoona facility a Best Plant is how it has successfully responded to the relentless global pressures for faster, leaner and cost-competitive production. The plant is following a multifaceted plan that includes the pursuit of new markets, new technologies, self-directed work teams, lean manufacturing and an emphasis on safety.

The bulk of General Cable Altoona's production is ignition wire sets (some 150,000 a week) for the aftermarket. But these ignition sets have been superseded by coil-on-plug technologies, resulting in a certain market decline. In response, plant leaders in 2005 began pursuing OEM work. From that decision, a whole series of changes was required in the plant, from technology to work processes to the layout of the facility itself.

To deal with various makes and models of cars on the road, not to mention packaging variations, the Altoona plant produces more than 6,000 SKUs of ignition wire sets with about 1,000 raw material SKUs. These sets are manufactured in batches of six to 300 sets. The plant employs both batch cutting and terminating machines, and linear cutters that enable single-piece flow for cutting and assembly. Each set is assembled by one operator.

The move to OEM production required the introduction of auto-booting equipment designed for a much more limited number of products. With this technology, each machine printed the wire; cut, stripped and terminated the leads; positioned and applied insulators onto the leads and then performed automatic quality inspections. To make room for this new production equipment, the plant redesigned its manufacturing layouts so that previous production was handled with a 25% smaller footprint. The plant also was certified in ISO/TS 16949:2002.

The success of this transition has rested not just with plant leaders but with a flexible unionized workforce that has become increasingly self-directed. For example, the training program is led by hourly associates who identify training needs, develop and conduct training, and certify trainees. Employees also publish The Spark, the monthly plant newsletter that is packed with business metrics, program news, community activities and family news. Teams also are working on safety, productivity and other ongoing plant priorities.

The Altoona facility has embraced lean manufacturing for years. With the "low-hanging fruit" gone, Smith noted, the plant needed the more sophisticated data analysis tools of Six Sigma to deal with more complex issues. The plant instituted a tiered training program that begins with lean technicians who receive a week of classroom training and then must complete a lean project in the following 30 days. Green belts and black belts receive increasing amounts of training. The result has been more employees engaged in efforts to improve production efficiency, an effort that resulted in more than $1 million in savings in the past year.

Taking Safety to Zero and Beyond

Ergonomic changes, job safety analyses part of resurgent safety program.

It wasn't exactly the Y2K bug, but General Cable's Altoona, Pa., plant did have a problem in 2000 it needed to address -- a recent track record of 10 recordable injuries per year. The plant's leadership team engaged employees in the effort to improve safety and soon saw results. For example, an operator-led team performed more than 50 job safety analyses and developed job safety procedures for each job they analyzed. Another employee team used the job safety procedures to develop visual work instructions, which are posted throughout the Altoona facility.

General Cable partnered with a local university to perform an ergonomic assessment of the plant and identify potential risks that could lead to work-related musculoskeletal disorders. The company made a number of changes to its products and processes to reduce potential stressors. It also began a training program that teaches employees how to improve their balance, leverage and positioning of their body to reduce strains.

The plant's aisles were redefined to eliminate forklifts from the main aisles. Slip, trip and fall hazards were reduced through the introduction of grit tile in the manufacturing cells. The plant also replaced utility knives with safety knives, implemented an arc flash program and tightened requirements for proper use of personal protection equipment such as safety eyewear. To ensure a quick, effective response to any emergencies that do arise, the plant has first aid responders covering all departments and shifts, and has purchased automatic external defibrillators and trained employees on their use.

To raise the profile of safety and reward employees for their safety performance, the plant started holding lunches to celebrate safety milestones and launched other reward programs.

All these efforts have paid off, as the plant this past November marked a year with zero injuries, living up to General Cables safety motto, "Zero and Beyond." Says plant manager Ken Smith of this achievement, "We are very proud of that. Our people are truly engaged and watching out for each other."

About the Author

Steve Minter | Steve Minter, Executive Editor

Focus: Leadership, Global Economy, Energy

Call: 216-931-9281

Follow on Twitter: @SgMinterIW

An award-winning editor, Executive Editor Steve Minter covers leadership, global economic and trade issues and energy, tackling subject matter ranging from CEO profiles and leadership theories to economic trends and energy policy. As well, he supervises content development for editorial products including the magazine,, research and information products, and conferences.

Before joining the IW staff, Steve was publisher and editorial director of Penton Media’s EHS Today, where he was instrumental in the development of the Champions of Safety and America’s Safest Companies recognition programs.

Steve received his B.A. in English from Oberlin College. He is married and has two adult children.

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