General Cable -- Manchester Plant: IW Best Plants Profile 2008

Dec. 12, 2008
Mindful of the Surroundings: Historic architecture doesn't get in the way of world-class manufacturing at General Cable's Manchester, N.H., operation.

General Cable Corp. -- Manchester Plant, Manchester, N.H.

Employees: 149, union

Total Square Footage: 550,000

Primary Product/market: electronics/ communications wire

Start-up: 1975

Achievements: General Cable Corp. 2007 Plant of the Year; 95.6% reduction in customer reject rate from 2004-2007; 800,000 hours worked without lost-time injuries

Built in 1909, the old textile mill that now houses General Cable's Manchester, N.H., plant is a typical design for the area. However, with its oak wood floors and load-bearing, floor-to-ceiling columns spaced only a few steps apart in each direction, one can quickly see what potential challenges the building could pose for a modern manufacturing operation.

"It is a historic building," says plant manager Paul Furtado. "But none of those things are going to change, so we decided not to let columns or wooden floors be an excuse for why we can't provide world-class manufacturing."

In the past, the mindset wasn't always so positive. "We can't do that, it's an old building," employees would often insist. But a few years ago management realized that they had a choice to make if they were going to remain competitive: Create world-class processes inside the plant they had, obstacles and all, or close up shop.

It wasn't much of a choice. In 2004 management implemented a new effort to cellularize the plant floor. That meant abandoning the existing departments for market-specific cells and rearranging machines to eliminate non-value-added activities.

Working around the structural obstacles took some creativity, but production in the new cell began to improve every month. As the strategy continued to show potential, a plan was approved to take the next step: reorganize the remaining 90% of the plant floor.

"It was such a huge change for management, scheduling and material methodologies, that we wanted to sprinkle it in slowly to get everyone's buy-in and acceptance," says manufacturing manager Tom Lacey. "Once we had that, the process really solidified and we were able to move it quickly to other parts of the plant."

In last three years, the change has helped reduce manufacturing cycle time by 60%. However, it was clear that moving machines around would only get them so far. So to make sure the changes stuck, a lean/Six Sigma program was also implemented.

The program focuses on a set of lean tools that targets everything from the Theory of Constraints to establishing a culture of 5S to organize each cell. A renewed focus on communication is now seen in weekly cell meetings, which serve to build trust between the operators and management -- something Furtado says requires just as much attention as any other process improvement in the plant.

Still, with 23 different nationalities represented, speaking 12 languages besides English, effectively getting new messages across can be tricky. To compensate, visual cues play a key role in the plant's productivity. Each cell is painted a designated color for easy identification, while red flashing lights signal material handlers any time floor stock quantities fall beneath their assigned buffer levels.

Production rates are posted in real-time on LED displays that hover over the cells, measuring footage of cable produced for each shift against targeted takt time (achieved 96% of the time over the past year). Bottlenecks are identified and reviewed daily to determine what sequencing orders within the schedule might better optimize each piece of equipment.

The plant's success also seems to buck the trend in much of New England. Many manufacturers have attempted to thrive in the old textile mills scattered throughout the area, but few have overcome its unique challenges. So how has General Cable survived? By refusing to let a building stand in the way of staying competitive, says Furtado.

"If anything, we have gone the other way," he says. "We have taken the things that people on the outside might see as constraints, and figured out how to use them to our advantage."

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Reducing Employee Defects

With two competitors in the area, General Cable relies on training and trust to keep employee turnover under control.

Showing operators how to use a machine is just one aspect of an effective training program. General Cable's Manchester, N.H., operation realized that fact when workers started defecting to the two other wire and cable producers that also happen to call Manchester home.

While the other companies compete in different markets, plant manager Paul Furtado says the machinery is similar enough to where each plant competes for the same skilled labor. Over the past three years, that and a variety of other factors pushed the plant's turnover rate to 13%.

"Anyone who left would end up going to one of our competitors," Furtado explains. "It got to the point to where their HR managers would call up and thank us for how well we trained their new employee. Some of it was beyond our control, but at the end of the day it was still costing us."

First, the introduction of a new cellular structure on the plant floor helped things along, adding a sense of belonging that HR manager Tony Bryant says had been previously absent. "Before workers would bounce from area to area and no one ever had a 'home' they could get used to. They never knew where they were going to be, so they never got a chance to fit in anywhere."

In addition, a formal green belt program was established to give employees the opportunity to participate in a variety of intensive lean and Six Sigma training courses. Instead of having employees attend a week-long course on everything lean, as had been done in the past, the program was broken up into smaller, more focused sessions to make them more effective.

The working climate as a whole also received some much-needed attention. While management has always encouraged an open dialogue with employees, it took it a step further by creating a "pay-for-skills" plan that provides opportunities for promotion and wage increases, in addition to improving long-term staff planning that offers a more stable work environment.

In the case of new hires, the review process during early training stages has been totally revitalized. "New operators used to go through the training cycle and the decision would be made to 'kick them out or keep them' after six or eight weeks," Bryant explains. Now, trainer, trainee and supervisor all meet weekly to see how things are going, determine if there are any issues and how to deal with them.

"The process we had was broken and we really had no choice but to totally change the way we trained new people," adds Dan Champagne, extruder operator and chief union steward. "That means doing everything we can to gain their trust."

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