Steel fabrication keeps flowing with fiber-optic cable

High-speed data networking via fiber-optic cabling enables the sharing of information, the automation of input and other capabilities that speed turnaround and increase production capacity.

The production of building systems has become increasingly sophisticated and customer-driven in recent years, incorporating integrated data communications and dynamic manufacturing systems to meet demand for timely and customized deliveries.

New Millennium Building Systems seeks to not only achieve those standards, but also to gain a competitive advantage by continually raising customer expectations to a level that is difficult for other suppliers to reach. This entails offering the right variety of products and maintaining agility in production processes so that customers know they can depend on their quality and scheduled deliveries.

New Millennium, a subsidiary of conglomerate Steel Dynamics Inc. in Fort Wayne, Ind., manufactures steel joists, girders and decking for non-residential construction projects. In 2006, New Millennium purchased joist-maker John H. Hancock of Salem, Va. New Millennium decided to renovate and expand the newly acquired operation to improve customer service and increase competitive pricing, plus expand product and geographic coverage. Five manufacturing plants now share resources and coordinate efforts.

"Our expansion program involved not only construction and renovation, but also system upgrades," explains Ricky Gillenwater, IT director at the Salem facility. "We recognized early on that this would depend on advanced capabilities in data communications, which in turn would require the right communications infrastructure — fiber-optic cabling throughout all the structures in our complex."

To accomplish this, Gillenwater's team contracted with Professional Network Services Inc. (PNS), a Roanoke, Va.-based full-service voice and data integration provider. PNS is a specialist in physical layer copper and fiber-optic cabling, LANs and WANs, including wireless networking, PBX and other communications systems.

"As part of the renovation project, New Millennium wanted to upgraded its voice and data network," explains Don Daniel, PNS area sales manager and executive project manager. "That included laying fiber-optic cable on their campus to connect five manufacturing buildings with the main office facility, where the IT resources were based."

However, the expansion of manufacturing facilities absorbed the existing office building, so a new one had to be built on an adjacent property. In the meantime, office facilities had to be housed in temporary modular structures. That meant temporarily installing fiber-optic cabling between those buildings and the manufacturing plants.

"That expedited the installation of our networks within the manufacturing sites," Gillenwater says. "We were able to get our fiber backbones in and connect them with the copper connections to our Total Logistic Control (TLC) based computers and other devices. That way we hit the ground running."

Daniel saw no problem with the temporary fiber installation. His firm is a reseller of Optical Cable Corporation (OCC), which manufactures a broad line of cables and accessories. By using OCC ruggedized fiber optic cable, PNS could provide for both indoor and outdoor runs. Because of its superior ruggedness, the OCC cable could easily to handle installation stresses as well as environmental and mechanical stresses over time.

The temporary fiber cable installation was easy to relocate to New Millennium's new Salem headquarters building once construction was completed. Now fiber cable runs from the main office to each of the plants and the satellite office. Each fiber-optic branch acts like a main distribution hub in each of the manufacturing facilities. In the main production facility, copper wires branch off the hub into different areas where they are connected to workstations and PCs supporting TLC programs.

"Running the fiber out there has given us the ability to report our production in real time," Gillenwater explains. "We also create bundle tags, bar code labels that are generated from the data that is pushed down to those machines from the main office. The network enables us to stay current with our inventory on hand and just gives us a better handle, from the office, on what's going on in the plant."

Gillenwater adds that production is now scheduled out in the plant, and everything flows in line from there. Actual production data is reported back to the office.

"We are also pushing data down to the machines," he says. "We are in the process of sending information to the machines so that they can actually function off that data rather than having to key in the data."

Gillenwater says that the new fiber-based approach to data communications is having a dramatic effect on business capabilities. He says that not only is production capacity improved, but so is turnaround. And that means a higher level of customer satisfaction — the essence of New Millennium's competitive advantage.

As far as network design and installation is concerned, he is complimentary of both the OCC product and the PNS solution.

"I needed a company to provide a complete turn-key solution for this project," Gillenwater says. "I knew that I could trust PNS as a partner to accomplish our objective. The quality and professionalism that they demonstrated on this project are what I've come to expect from PNS. I now feel that I have some of the best technology in the valley. Our motto at New Millennium Building Systems is 'Flexible to the Finish.' It's nice to be on the receiving end of that motto."

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