Forecasting demand for 600 varieties of products that are shipped in 24 hours or less but require five days to manufacture requires a bit of art and a lot of experience. But that expertise is what West Penn Wire offers its customers, thanks to its years of experience in designing custom cabling that can be used by systems integrators in commercial structures for networking, security, fire and audio/video systems.
“Low inventory levels are the name of the game,” Director of Operations Ed Szygenda emphasizes. “Our motto is in 24 hours or less we’ll ship you the product, so we have to have the right inventory in the right mix based on past history. We can’t be just-in-time with the product breadth we offer.”
Setting those low inventory levels requires calculations based on past history. “We’ll run some sales data and see historical data,” Szygenda explains. “We’re looking at big projects that may have a chance of hitting that month. Seasonality breaks into our business. I set up a demand plan in a rough-cut capacity and plan against this to know how much I’m going to need as far as manpower or anything in raw material procurement, and plan that out for the next month’s production.”
Tracking the accuracy of the scheduling is part of the process. “We judge ourselves on this,” Szygenda stresses. “So we make adjustments to those levels, which vary in the warehouse. We run off a kanban system at West Penn, where our distribution center sends us cards down and the plant manufactures against the cards. We don’t have an automated scheduling system – it’s all manual.”
West Penn Wire’s manufacturing cycle time in its single 90,000-square-foot plant in Washington, Pa., is approximately five days, Szygenda estimates. His goal this year is to reduce that to three days or less. The company receives 18- or 22-gauge copper wire from its suppliers and applies a compound coating to the primary lines. This is done by heating the plastic coating in an extrusion machine to the required consistency, sending it through a screw and die and applying it to the wire at varying speeds measured in feet per minute. The wire then is respooled.
When an order is received for a specific type of cable, three to six wires are sent through a buncher that feeds or twines them like a rope onto another spool. The final step of the process is to twist or flow-wrap over all the wires a compound jacket of polyvinyl chloride or a heat-resistant coating for fireproof applications. The wire then is spooled onto 500- or 1,000-foot reels for shipment.
The traditional wire manufacturing process requires approximately three to four employees, but West Penn Wire has automated processes for short runs of wire that can do the entire process automatically. The company’s average wire manufacturing run is 10,000 feet.
“Since we design these machines, we can change over very quickly with less waste, downtime and inventory,” Szygenda maintains. “We can react to the customer’s needs much quicker.” West Penn Wire has one manufacturing engineer on staff. Some of its manufacturing equipment is custom and the company can design wire products to meet customers’ specifications. But much of its product line is specified in building codes under the company’s own name.
The 3,000 customers of West Penn Wire are mostly systems integrators. “We go direct to the guy pulling the wire,” Szygenda points out. “A lot of our products ship directly to the jobsite. We cater to a smaller clientele.” For large projects, West Penn can manufacture wire with special printing on the cable.
The company holds an event during the first week of March at which employees who have earned black belts in lean manufacturing evaluate the company’s manufacturing cells for adherence to the 5S methodology, which stands for: sorting, set in order, systematic cleaning, standardizing and sustaining.
West Penn Wire also follows lean daily management principles. These include a five- to 10-minute meeting in each manufacturing cell of a half-dozen employees with Szygenda and representatives of quality control, safety, inventory and delivery to examine the metrics of that cell and determine if any improvement is needed.
“We go over any issues we may have and the metrics set for each cell, the goals they want to meet every day and report on those goals,” Szygenda explains. If goals are not being met, another lean manufacturing method called the 5 Whys is practiced. This involves asking “Why?” at least five times after answers explaining why a goal is not being met.
The object of this exercise is to finally arrive at a root cause for a missed goal that can be corrected. Sometimes the answers reveal that changes need to be made by other departments or a supplier.
Last August, West Penn installed new equipment called turning points that it had designed, built and installed. “We’re on a project right now to bring in a lot more in-line testing of our wire,” Szygenda says.
The new in-line testing equipment is scheduled for installation by the first quarter of 2014. “Some equipment is starting to arrive now,” Szygenda reports. “It’s an ongoing project and a pretty expensive bill for us, but we need to upgrade those pieces of equipment to be more competitive and ensure that our quality is 100 percent.”