The transition to clean energy needs to be successfully wired

Clean energy: these days the term sometimes seems inescapable, doesn’t it? Whichever side of the fence you sit on regarding its uptake and the broader subject of environmental concerns, such issues are front of mind in both the consumer and enterprise worlds, hotly debated by the public, politicians, and corporate leaders alike.

The topic is multi-faceted but, in this blog, we’re going to focus on just one: the wire manufacturing industry. Here, clean energy has major ramifications. But before we do that, let’s quickly survey and understand the broader landscape.

Clean energy: a brief introduction

The term “clean energy” refers to the use of energy sources and technologies that minimize the negative impact on the environment of traditional fuels by not releasing toxic pollutants or greenhouse gases, thus increasing sustainability. Such sources are more sustainable and environmentally friendly than the fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas that we’ve historically relied on. As a result, they mitigate the negative consequences of climate change, air, and water pollution, etc. In terms of its forms, clean energy comes in many, among them:

  • Renewable energy
  • Solar power
  • Wind power
  • Hydroelectric power (water)
  • Geothermal energy
  • Tidal energy
  • Nuclear energy
  • Biomass energy

It’s a big deal

All of the above is a big deal not just because Clean Energy has won mindshare in a world that’s increasingly environmentally aware but because the transition to using clean energy sources impacts any number of manufacturing sectors. It also isn’t straightforward. A real-world example perfectly illustrates how and why.

The planned NeuConnect electricity cable[1] running between south-east England and north-west Germany will enable two major economies to trade electricity directly for the first time. It’s a big step forward for clean energy and it’s a £2.4 billion project, at the center of which are long-distance, cross-border cables that will serve as interconnectors enabling the ultimate goal of helping both countries to hit their climate targets and boost energy security when the project is complete. Work has already started with go-live anticipated in 2028.

2028. That’s four years behind schedule. Why the delay? Mostly because of difficulties in acquiring the necessary supplies of electricity cable. NeuConnect isn’t alone in facing that problem. Plenty of similar examples abound. The problem is easy to define. Demand for clean technologies is surging, and suppliers of the desired materials are struggling to keep up, particularly in the area of the electricity cabling necessary for connection to the grid. The cabling, of course, is formed around wires.

Not an easy problem to solve

This wire problem here won’t be easy to overcome. Raw materials (copper for one) aren’t always easy to secure and wire manufacturing requires skilled labor so new factories can’t emerge overnight. It’s not easy to make high-quality, industrial standard wire. Thus, while demand for clean energy solutions rises, the parts required to deliver it faces a manufacturing bottleneck. Something, clearly, must give because conductor and steel armor wiring are central elements of the cabling necessary in the examples above. There’s a simple takeaway here: the wire manufacturing industry faces an opportunity that it’s struggling to meet.

Why is this the case? Why is balancing supply and demand so challenging? Because wire manufacturing isn’t a straightforward task; orders not only have to be delivered in a timely fashion (straightforward enough in theory), but production quality also has to be high and, with access to often limited raw materials, the reduction of wastage is also critical. If supply is to meet demand, therefore, manufacturing processes must be optimal and central to this, where wire is concerned, is the performance of drawing dies.

Wire manufacturing: drawing die accuracy is critical

Drawing dies because, in wire manufacturing, accuracy is vital and drawing dies are central to delivering it. In very simple terms, a wire being manufactured is pulled through a die and it’s the die (and its performance) that determines the quality of the finished wire. A substandard die, in other words, means a substandard wire follows. And a substandard wire means, ultimately, unmet demand.

Die quality is, thus (though it may seem unlikely on the surface), critical to the transition to a clean energy world. It contributes directly to the success or failure of the entire wire drawing process. If a die is in some way out of specification, then the wires produced won’t be usable. And accuracy is the characteristic that determines whether a die is usable. Dies must be measured with extremely high accuracy to ensure the output wire is of the exact specification required by the end-user.

Die geometry and size can’t be taken for granted. Specifications (for example, diameter, ovality, bearing length, and reduction cone angle) must be met.  Imperfections in the dies will negatively impact production, quality assurance and product reliability. So, ensuring that die sets are of the required quality is essential. If quality isn’t assured, problems quickly follow.

Meeting demand

The takeaway here is that drawing dies must be maintained to the highest standards. Incorrect dimensions impact performance and the quality of output so failure to ensure that dies maintain the correct dimensions will lead to:

  • Increased numbers of production halts 
  • Reduced drawing speed
  • Reduced wire quality
  • Higher number of wire breaks
  • Reduced die life and quality
  • Unnecessary costs, when unusable wire is formed wasting the raw materials. 
  • Poor sustainability metrics, as a result of consuming energy to manufacture subsequently unusable wires

…and, of course, missed clean energy targets and four years delays in the launch of new projects! Scaling up this problem, we have to recognize that reconfiguring the grid to meet the demands of distributed power generation will, in turn, demand huge lengths of new wire to make the transmission cables required – thousands of kilometers in Europe alone.

If you can accurately measure your dies, you can replace them before quality declines and so preserve performance.  Measurement is a critical step. Conversely, when dies are compromised, either by incorrect manufacture, wear, and tear, or for other reasons, the dies involved must be taken out of service for repair or replacement. This clearly negatively impacts the ability of supply to meet demand.

There’s also an environmental benefit to reducing “scrap” wire (wire that’s been drawn but can’t be used). Scrap wires have, when made, still consumed energy in the manufacturing process and accurate wire measurement thus increases sustainability.

When there is a need, as is the case with clean energy transition, to produce wires at scale, with thousands of dies in use each day, checking for compliance with the required output specification is essential – as just one error can disrupt your production. And you need to be able to achieve this quickly and with the requisite scale to meet your needs.

About Conoptica

A leading source of high accuracy measurement systems for drawing dies is Conoptica, which offers a variety of measurement systems suitable for dies of different sizes. They enable the accurate measurement of dies, so that you can track consistency and take appropriate actions – avoiding excessive quality deterioration and enabling better management of your die stocks.

Conoptica is the market leader for measurement equipment in the wire & cable industry and has been providing high tech camera-based measurement solutions since 1993. We make sure that the metal working industry has access to key quantitative data about their products and tools.

[1] (NB – link behind paywall)