AFL- A Fibre Solution

This cable manufacturer has invested to support the telecoms industry.

AFL’s origins lie in North America, where it began as a joint venture between Alcoa, and the Japanese company, Fujikura Ltd, to manufacture fibre optic cables for power lines.

The joint venture, originally named Alcoa Fujikura Ltd, has grown a lot since then. Today the company is a global fibre optic cable manufacturing firm with 11 manufacturing locations and is wholly owned by the $7 billion Fujikura Group. Providing a full turnkey service from technical design and manufacturing to installation services, AFL serves the energy, enterprise, hyperscale, service provider and industrial sectors.

The Swindon branch of AFL was founded to manufacture SkyWrap®, a solution for installing fibre optic cables onto existing ground wires or phase conductors. Even today it remains a unique supplier of this product to global markets, but this branch of the company recently relocated to larger premises to meet the needs of its evolving role and diversified offering.

“Last year, following investment from our Japanese parent company, we moved to larger premises,” Paul Bennett is the General Manager for AFL’s arm of the business in Swindon. “Existing cable production lines were moved to the new location whilst installing a new production line. The move took place during the pandemic and was a huge challenge.”

Hard Work and Determination

Achieving this move was the result of “Sheer hard work and determination,” according to Bennett.

“We planned it as much as we could, but you will always have challenges and barriers,” he says.

To carry out the change in premises without halting the company’s day-to-day operations, employees each took on a second role associated with the move. As well as requiring a huge effort from its staff, AFL also needed to ensure it had the necessary expertise in place, and so where necessary, training was given to reinforce the skills of its staff. While some skills could be contracted, skills also needed to be developed in-house so that they could oversee those contractors.

“If you’re moving production lines, which we hadn’t done in 30 years, you can bring in a contractor to move the equipment, but you need to ensure they do that properly,” Bennett says.

AFL’s new location is near Swindon’s old Honda manufacturing plant. Until recently, the plant had been a large employer in Swindon, so by relocating within the town, AFL was able to provide opportunities to people with technical skills who had been left unemployed by the plant’s closure.

Nurturing Ambition

This was fortunate for the people AFL hired, but it was also a valuable opportunity for AFL to source skills in a challenging and competitive employment market. Following the pandemic, many companies have seen rapid growth, leading to a jobseekers’ market.

“We make sure we take time to hire the right people, going through many interview cycles looking for people who are the right fit,” Bennett tells us. “We are a small company and are looking for people with a ‘can do’ attitude. We can offer a variety of roles and teamwork goes a long way here!”

Once people become part of AFL, the company takes a personalised approach to developing each employee’s ambitions, competencies, and aptitudes to offer them career development which matches their own, and the company’s needs. While some employees are extremely ambitious from the start and want a career path with lots of mobility, others are happy to find job satisfaction in a role they can work in long term.

“We have some people with 20 years’ experience looking for security and job satisfaction; not just a financial reward,” Bennett points out.

AFL is undergoing a significant growth cycle at the moment, opening up many new roles within the company and allowing it to offer progression. Throughout the business, there is a real sense that the company’s journey is also the journey of its people.

“Every employee participates in and can contribute to the overall success of the company,” Bennett says.

Spreading the Knowledge

The latest cycle of growth is fuelled by ongoing advancements in the utility market.

“With the ongoing expansion of offshore wind power and the electrical vehicles roll out, we will see huge requirements for flexibility in the power network,” Bennett observes.

As this demand rises, the electrical network in the UK and around Europe will need to be modified, adapting to changing inputs and outputs alongside the ongoing implementation of the “smart grid” concept. For AFL, however, the most immediate area of growth, as well as the company’s reason for relocating in Swindon, is the booming telecoms market.

AFL’s new facility has been built with enough capacity to accommodate the business’s new production line, which has two unique features. The facility produces a very high-density fibre optic cable for telecoms customers such as Openreach, which allows them to maximise their existing networks. As well as being of high quality in and of themselves, they can also help providers avoid the expensive and slow work of digging up the street for installation. Instead, these cables can be installed by blowing in through existing ducts.

Traditionally, in the industry the rule is that the higher the fibre count of a cable, the longer it takes to install. For example, it can take up to 20 hours to join two cables, but AFL’s approach can take jointing time from 20 hours to just three.

AFL now runs the first European facility to manufacture this new cable, ‘Air-Blown Wrapping Tube Cable with SpiderWeb Ribbon®’. AFL has gone on to serve many UK customers, following the market. “With energy markets becoming ‘smart’ and the telecoms operators rolling out more gigabit broadband, we are very excited to be in our new premises to better serve these demands,” Bennett concludes.

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