Volume 8 | Issue 1 | Year 2005

Over the years, cable manufacturer Rockbestos-Surprenant Cable Corporation (RSCC) had become a jack of all trades, but in recent years, realized that to sustain momentum it had to become the master architect of a smaller, but highly critical, product base.

The company achieved this by employing what’s known as an “80/20” approach, forcing the evaluation of production output versus sales. In the case of RSCC, a global leader in the production of specialty cables, the ratio result was top heavy: 90 percent of sales, the company learned, were coming from 10 percent of customers and this, of course, meant effort was being placed into the manufacture of products that were not necessary raking in profits. A consistently profitable company nonetheless found it had to consolidate its operations in order to further prosper.

The result is proof of how such structured analysis can have a direct impact at all levels and foster growth. Consider: while the now $100 million company eliminated $15-$20 million in sales – effectively 10 percent of its business – it experienced a near-twofold increase in profitability.

“We looked at customers and products and concentrated on our core competencies to better focus at what we’re really good at,” comments President and General Manager Fred Schwelm. “Once we devised the right market/product mix, we came up with a plan to manufacture in a different way. Traditionally our plants were one big job shop. Now we’ve segregated our factories by the types of products and markets we support, which has made us dramatically more efficient.” Streamlining the operation by installing inline/cellular production methodology, he estimates, will achieve a 15 percent overall cost reduction – “and we think we might exceed that.”

Achieving such substantial savings has not only boded well for the company in its current configuration but is set to advance its business into the decades ahead. Adds Vice President of Sales and Marketing Dennis Chalk: “We’re not just looking one year ahead, but five to 10 years ahead.”

Part and parcel of the strategy to run more efficiently has been the physical consolidation of the company’s three factories: Manchester, N.H.; Clinton, Mass., and East Granby, Conn. into two sites -East Granby and Manchester, a project that now is near 90 percent complete. “We also have built a new factory, in addition to our existing plant, at East Granby dedicated to the production of our downhole metal clad cable, specialty military/ shipboard cable, and braiding capabilities,” notes Advertising and Communications Manager Jim Belanger. Downhole metal clad cable is a technology utilized generally in offshore oil well exploration to power the instruments that measure temperature, pressure and seismic variables; the cable can extend to depths of 20,000 feet. Extending to lengths of 30,000 feet in one continuous piece, the cable is clad in a protective metal sheath in a process that is unique to RSCC. Specialty military/shipboard are a series of low voltage cable construction utilizing a low-smoke and non-toxic insulation and jacketing materials that help to power a ship’s data, control and instrumentation.

RSCC is also world renowned for its irradiation capabilities; as part of its strategy, the company has started groundbreaking for three state-of-the-art electron beam irradiation units at its East Granby manufacturing facility. These new irradiation units, in addition to two existing units, will position RSCC as having the largest cable irradiation capabilities in North America.

Rockbestos first invested in irradiation technology in 1976. Today, the company has about 60 percent of the irradiation capacity in North America, and the vast majority of its cable products undergo the process. “No capital investment has been more instrumental to the company’s success than the acquisition and ongoing development of irradiation technology,” Schwelm says. Using electron beams, the process exposes cables to high levels of electro-magnetic energy, cross-linking or altering the chemical structure of the polymer materials. This enhances the material properties, enabling the finished cables to function even under severe conditions.

Irradiation equipment has also been installed at the PMC Division’s 93,000-square-foot plant in Manchester. That operation is geared to smaller specialty wire for military, aerospace and commercial applications. Investment – in training, processes and facilities – remains a priority.

“The equipment must be housed in a concrete structure,” Chalk explains, because the machines generate energy of up to three million volts. “The concrete walls have to be six feet thick and the building structure is 70 to 80 feet high.” Needless to say, such massive dimensions precipitated the need for many tons of concrete – by the end of the project, which is now halfway completed, 1,400 concrete trucks will have rolled into the site.

The irradiation system, Chalk adds, will be primarily used to increase capacity and quality assurance to the company’s line of Exane(r) oil rig and transportation cable. Exane(r) has been the flagship product for RSCC for over 25 years: over one billion feet has been installed without a reported field failure. The irradiation process is used in the manufacture of Exane(r) to produce its proprietary cross-linked insulation, making it impervious to harsh industrial conditions. The new irradiation units are scheduled to be operational by Jan. 1, 2005.

Once-Separate Companies Come Together
The history of RSCC involves many twists and turns. Currently, the company is a member of The Marmon Group, an international association of more than 100 manufacturing and service companies that operate independently within diverse business sectors. Member companies have collective revenues in excess of $5 billion dollars. Marmon Wire & Cable, a sector within The Marmon Group, consists of companies that manufacture and market an array of electrical and electronic wire and cable for a wide variety of industries worldwide. Together, those companies sell more than $1 billion in wire and cable and employ about 2,500 people. Besides RSCC and PMC Corporation, this sector is comprised of leaders such as Aetna Insulated Wire, Cable USA, Cerro Wire & Cable Company, Comtran Corporation, Dekoron Wire & Cable, General Cable Industries, Harbour Industries, Hendrix Wire & Cable, The Kerite Company, Owl Wire and Cable, Raven Wire and Cable and Unitherm Heat Trace Products. Their products are used in applications such as residential, commercial and industrial construction, automotive, aerospace, telecommunications, computers, transit, appliances, industrial power and instrumentation, aerial and underground utility distribution, and environments where exposure to harsh elements is anticipated.

Relates Belanger: “When Rockbestos-Surprenant Cable Corporation (RSCC) touts its product range, it refers not only to the many types of wire and cable we design and manufacture, but also to the far-flung places where those products are used: in power plants, paper mills and glass and steelworks; in planes, trains and automobiles; along frozen tundra, beneath the sea and in space. From our New England base, this company has shaped its place in the electrical wire and cable industry with products engineered for exposure to harsh environments, including extreme temperatures, flame, radiation, moisture and corrosive atmospheres.”

Individually, the Rockbestos and Surprenant businesses date to the first half of the 20th century. In 1918, the Marlin Rockwell Corporation acquired patents for insulating electrical wire and started an Insulated Wire Division in New Haven, Conn. Two years later, Rockbestos Products Corporation was formed. Arthur G. Newton became company president in 1923, serving until his death in March 1955. His successor died less than a month later, and by the end of June of that same year, the business was sold. Through a subsequent series of mergers and acquisition, Rockbestos became associated with the wire and cable division of Cerro Corporation, and joined The Marmon Group through the merger of Cerro Corporation in 1976. In 1992, Rockbestos moved all operations to a plant in East Granby, which it had purchased in 1974 and since expanded.

The Surprenant side of the story takes at least as many turns. In 1935, in Worcester, Mass., Albert H. Surprenant started a business to distribute plastic tubes used for insulation. In 1941, Haven Manufacturing Company was formed to manufacture wire and cable. By 1948, all operations were consolidated as Surprenant Manufacturing Company. International Telephone and Telegraph bought Surprenant, by that time located in Clinton, Mass. Completing the current picture, Rockbestos-Surprenant acquired another specialty wire and cable manufacturer, PMC Corporation of Manchester, N.H., in 1999. The PMC deal also added one more turn of events: In 1968, Bert Surprenant, having sold his namesake business, started another one, this time in Londonderry, N.H. Named A.H. Surprenant, Inc., the company was sold in 1985 to PMC Corporation.

Rockbestos-Surprenant’s acquisition of the PMC Corporation significantly strengthens its presence in the wire and cable industry. Now Rockbestos-Surprenant offers one of the most complete lines of power, control, instrumentation, signal and high temperature cables with special designs and standard constructions serving industrial, utility, electronics, transportation, petrochemical and fire safety markets. Its factories use a wide variety of conductors, insulation, shields and protective coverings, including many innovations stemming from the company’s aggressive research and development programs.

“We believe we have to be relentless when it comes to R&D,” says Schwelm, who joined Rockbestos in 1993. “Really, our future is going to be in new products, not just the ones we’ve come out with lately but also other innovations down the road. Development has to be ongoing because new products differentiate us from the competition and keep us from getting drawn into a commodity-oriented market.”

Trending upward
As with many other companies, RSCC, ISO-9001 certified, is experiencing a trend toward smaller, lighter, tougher products that are both reliable and cost-effective. To meet those expectations, Rockbestos-Surprenant has more than 20,000 square feet of laboratory space. Materials are tested for the effects of flame, extreme temperatures, smoke and emissions, aging and other destructive factors. Lab-scale manufacturing equipment assists in analysis of new compounds and processes.

“While Rockbestos-Surprenant emphasizes product development, it doesn’t necessarily throw out the old to make way for the new, not when long-standing proprietary products continue to be industry favorites,” Chalk relates. ” We’re always looking to add versions of existing product series while offering innovative new lines as well.”

RSCC’s core market areas are the nuclear and utility industries for which it provides cables similar to those used by the military: low voltage cables that can help to power and control data instrumentation systems.

The nuclear side, as might be expected, is heavily regulated and is weighted with strict safety standards; as an example, Schwelm explains, safety circuits need to withstand an incident generally referred to as LOCA, or loss of coolant accident, which means wiring and cable needs to be operable in environments of high temperatures and radioactivity. Such volatile environments need to be simulated in RSCC’s laboratories to ensure cables keep their integrity for a span of 40 years. “That means if you install a cable and after 39 years there’s an accident, the cable will withstand that environment,” Schwelm says.

In the oil and petrochemical market, Rockbestos-Surprenant features two widely recognized product lines: Exane(r) and Gardex(r) cable.

Developed in the early 1970s, the Exane(r) name represents a wide variety of power, control and instrumentation cables. A proprietary insulation/jacket material gives the Exane(r) line electrical and mechanical characteristics ideal to applications including offshore oil drilling rigs, diesel locomotives and transit cars. Exane(r) cables are known for their resistance to oil, chemicals, flame, cuts and abrasions. A new thin-wall version, Exane(r)-15, is smaller and lighter without sacrificing performance.

“We are the leading manufacturers of wire and cable for the transit car, locomotive industry,” says Chalk. “Exane is used in probably 95 percent of the wiring in transit cars – we’re by far the dominant supplier. It has tremendous physical, chemical and electrical properties and can withstand extremes of environment.”

The Gardex(r) line is another fixture in the industry, consisting of a conduit and wiring system clad in welded and corrugated aluminum, which is durable yet flexible. It is used on oil production platforms and in petrochemical facilities, pulp and paper processing plants and other industrial settings to protect circuits from moisture, corrosion and mechanical damage.

Added in the late 1990s was the MC (metal clad) sensor line. The family of armored cable was developed to provide power to, and transmit data from, sensor systems used in sub sea oil exploration and production. The basic product consists of a single insulated conductor sheathed in welded stainless steel or Incoloy, a nickel stainless metal alloy.

With dedicated production lines installed at the East Granby plant, Rockbestos-Surprenant is the only manufacturer with all the equipment needed to produce each component of the metal clad sensor cable. Such innovations allow Rockbestos-Surprenant to confidently advertise the broadest product range of any cable supplier to the petrochemical industry. The company is also a long-time leader in “fire survivable” technology, developing cables designed to perform their principal function while under attack by fire. Such fire resistant wiring is critical in applications including jet engines and nuclear power plants. “One of Rockbestos-Surprenant’s cables can withstand 2000 degree (Fahrenheit) flame for an hour or longer,” says Chalk.

Recently, the company introduced VITALink(r) circuit integrity cables, which have achieved a two-hour fire resistance rating – withstanding flames of up to 1,850 degrees even while under a water hose stream – through use of a proprietary insulation named Fire-Roc(tm). VITALink(r) MC is a power, control and lighting cable designed for uses including fire pump controllers, emergency generation, lighting and exhaust systems, and exit signs. VITALink(r) CI is fire alarm cable whose flame resistant qualities allow the alarms to function properly when needed most to save lives or property.

Rockbestos-Surprenant also manufactures an array of other specialty products. The PMC division produces electronic hook-up wires used in products such as business machines, medical equipment and appliances. The newly constructed military cable cell in East Granby manufactures military specification cables used in aviation, shipboard, missile and other electronic applications and coaxial communication wires.

RSCC has developed a buoyant antenna cable as well, to be deployed from the conning tower of a submarine to serve as an extremely low frequency antenna for communications while the craft is submerged.

Myriad capabilities
“We do a good job of identifying niche markets,” Schwelm adds. “There’s always somebody out there with a problem or a special need, and we have a good reputation for coming up with practical solutions. We also have the means – the total package of capabilities – to deliver on what we say we’ll do.”

The variety and volume of products require extensive manufacturing capacity and capabilities. Rockbestos-Surprenant meets that need with more than 300 employees and 450,000 square feet of facilities. The company provides sales, service and engineering support to customers via field sales representatives, agents and distributors, and warehouses located throughout the U.S.

Those facilities include a 42,000-square-foot distribution center in East Granby. Inside are hundreds of reels, some nearly six feet tall, holding finished cable ranging up to four inches in diameter. In the manufacturing plants, extrusion is the central process in which various thermoplastic/thermoset compounds are extruded over bare or coated copper strands. Then single conductors are cabled into various configurations and wrapped with aluminum or polyester tape and ground wire.

The East Granby facilities have the capabilities to manufacture multi-conductor constructions with as many as 144 wires under one cable jacket. Single conductor constructions range from sizes 777MCM to as small as #26 AWG. All in all, Rockbestos-Surprenant is the most diverse manufacturer of specialty wire and cable in North America.

As RSCC maps its strategy for the future – and matches its capabilities to meet the demanding needs of its cable customers – the company can also invoke a past highlighted with involvement in historic achievements, as a manufacturer of wire for the Manhattan Project in 1944 for use in the first atomic bomb, and of coaxial cable for the Surveyor lunar explorer in 1965 and the Apollo lunar exploration vehicle in 1969. As Schwelm notes, the company has become a global player known for its scores of proprietary designs “for more down-to-earth applications – and some below ground, too.” It seems, however, that the sky’s the limit for this rock solid business.