For many years, Western Electric Co. (New York) was one of the largest wire processors in the world. The company boasted that it manufactured “43,000 varieties of telephone apparatus.” It invested heavily in state-of-the-art automated equipment to assemble complex wire harnesses used in telephone switching systems and other advanced telecommunications gear. Western Electric engineers also developed numerous time-saving innovations in-house, which ASSEMBLY frequently reported on.

For instance, an article in the September 1964 issue described a hand-held cable binding tool that would “form a plastic lacing loop around loose wire, draw the loop tight and fasten it with a staple to make up a secure wire bundle. The old method of binding the wire bundles by hand with rayon cord required 40 percent of the total manufacturing time.”

A news item in the January 1972 issue explained how Western Electric engineers used computers, tape recorders and tiny short-wave broadcasting systems to help assemblers “weave” as many as 10,000 individual strands of wire onto large boards studded with strategically placed nails. Some of the more complex harnesses required 300 or more pages of computer-generated instructions.

A system called “instant memory” consisted of a tape-recorded message that told operators which wire to pick and how to weave it onto the board. Assemblers were equipped with headsets and a foot-operated switch that controlled the tape recorder. According to the article, “engineers found that the method provided an average increase in efficiency of 20 percent and a decrease in defects and repairs of 50 percent.”

For more information on the remarkable history of Western Electric, including its famous Hawthorne Works factory in Chicago, see “Assembly Then & Now: The Hawthorne Works” in the August 2002 issue of ASSEMBLY.