When I was a process engineer at a large cabler, we could reconfigure our fiber optic process lines in about 20 minutes. In a 3-shift day, we could produce 8 different products. Unfortunately, most cablers don’t enjoy this level of efficiency.
Cablers large and small struggle when reconfiguring process lines for new, add-on products. Process engineers find they need to call on a lot of different skills, technologies, and knowledge in multiple areas. They discover that substantial expertise is required to efficiently – and appropriately – reconfigure a process line.
Producing high volumes
Throughout the fiber optic industry, money follows volume. Most cablers produce high volumes of the same product for the telecommunications or data communications industries: loose-tube cables, ribbon fiber cables, high-volume single mode fiber, or multimode high-bandwidth fiber.
Let’s say a cabler introduces an add-on product, perhaps a patch cord, to its high-volume product line. Even if the new product has a fairly large production quantity, it may be considered small volume due to expected revenue. With this patch cord, the cabler may process just 1 or 2 fibers or perhaps 12 fibers, as opposed to a 288-strand fiber optic cable.
I find that large cablers are reluctant to dedicate costly engineering resources and time to appropriately reconfigure – and test – an existing process line for a small-volume product. Smaller cablers tend to have limited engineering resources, which may be strained and stretched to the limit. Smaller cablers often specialize in one product area. (A good example is manufacturing super-high-strength fiber such as GRP torpedo cables used to fire smart torpedoes.) It’s challenging to dedicate the required engineering time to reconfigure a process line for an entirely different product that may be a one-time run or short life cycle product.
Cablers often try to use existing processes and equipment to manufacture a new product.
“If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” This axiom is known as the Law of the Instrument. Interestingly, the basic concept dates back at least a century – perhaps even more. And I can see why. When you are used to doing something one way, it’s human nature to keep looking at everything else the same way. You continue to use one “hammer” (the same tool or approach) to address every new challenge.
How does this apply to cablers? Often, they try to use an existing process and equipment to manufacture a new, add-on product. For example, they might try to convert a loose tube process line into a tight buffer process line. They make several assumptions: That they can keep the same tooling designs, they don’t need specialized applicators, and they can use one tensioning system. These assumptions are not correct. In a loose tube cable manufacturing process, the length of the tube is critical, but the tension is adjusted by the capstan and the pulling ratios between two capstans. In the tight buffer manufacturing process, the payoff tension is as critical as the takeup tension – how the two interact determines the performance of the tight buffer. These are totally different process concepts.
You can see that the axiom – “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” – applies, because cablers often try to use the existing process and tools on new products. But the manufacturing process can vary tremendously with the type of fiber being created. That’s why it’s important to have access to the necessary technical expertise (internal or external) to efficiently – and appropriately – reconfigure your process line.
As a side note, this article is helpful if you work for a cable equipment manufacturer, since your company supplies machinery to cablers. It’s important to be aware of the challenges that cablers face when reconfiguring existing process lines to support new products. Cablers will look to you for help adjusting existing machinery, installing different machinery, or designing new machinery for a specialized process. My advice: Be ready to offer the technical expertise (either internal or external) to cablers. Be a resource to help them efficiently reconfigure a process line for their new fiber optic product.
Minimized change (minor modifications) to an existing process line can result in a suboptimized product
In many cases, the cabler’s process engineers may not fully understand the complexity of 2 different fiber optic products – the existing product and the new, add-on product – as well as the variabilities of process requirements. This situation may cause the process engineers to take the route of minimized change. When reconfiguring the process line, they make a few tweaks here, a few minor adjustments there. As a result, they unknowingly suboptimize the new product.
The manufacturing process can vary significantly for 2 different fiber optic products – even if the 2 products look the same! For example, a tight buffer product will have very different process requirements if it’s going to be used as a drop cable or patch cord. Ironically, the resulting products may geometrically meet your specifications. However, when you put them into service, the end customer will find that they fail miserably.
And don’t overlook testing. Part of reconfiguring a process line is taking time to conduct appropriate tests. Not all cablers (large or small) have experience conducting high-value testing for specialty, short-run, and add-on products. That’s why it’s helpful to have access to a knowledgeable engineer (internal or external) to administer the appropriate tests. A good example is the test for aeolian vibration, a typical test for drop cables. This test involves setting up a standing wave caused by wind on a cable stretched between two poles. This verifies that when the cable is installed properly it can survive the expected weather in its planned configuration. When the cable is put into service, it needs to meet the customer’s written and unwritten requirements. It needs to work in the customer’s environment.
Look at your project with a new set of eyes – and a new set of ideas.
A colleague likes to say, “The most important view for any new project is looking at it with a new set of eyes.” I think that’s very true. Whether you’re a cabler or cable equipment manufacturer, you aren’t embedded inside your end customers’ production facilities. You don’t know what challenges your customers face when they use your products, unless they bring you into the discussion. Having access to a technical expert who has worked with all types of machinery, processes, and products in the fiber optic industry gives you a new set of eyes – and a new set of ideas.
In the engineering world, having a new set of eyes can be a proactive strategy to ensure you’re heading in the right direction without getting sidetracked with a detour. (This could be compared to a peer review process.) In addition, the build-or-buy decision is sometimes helped by an outside set of eyes. Armed with an initial concept and sketch, your company may have the resources to quickly build the specialized machine or equipment you need.
With this in mind, many cablers and cable equipment manufacturers have brought me in as a “hired gun” (so to speak). Often, they seek technical expertise on an engineering project such as new product development, new product introduction, or reconfiguring a process line. In some cases, they need an outside viewpoint on a business opportunity such as a product’s potential volume and lifetime, company policies and training procedures, or the competitive landscape.
Specifically, companies often ask me to:
- Provide cable and process design services
- Provide short-term project technical management
- Create a snapshot of the existing facility as compared to best practice
- Add fiber cable capability to existing copper or loose tube operations
- Provide short-term process support
- Help size niche product market opportunities
- Train and provide support to on-site engineering and operations personnel
- Assist in extrusion tooling design
- Develop custom cable designs
An outside perspective can offer fresh eyes and fresh ideas to help your process engineers efficiently – and appropriately – reconfigure your process lines for new products, without resulting in suboptimized products. At the end of the day, your fiber optic products need to meet specifications and be accepted by the customer.