STL formally opens South Carolina fiber plant

STL, one of several fiber vendors that have onshored manufacturing to the U.S., today formally announced the launch of its new facility in Lugoff, South Carolina – its first plant in North America.

The company invested $56 million into the Palmetto Plant, which is named after South Carolina’s state tree and currently employs over 150 people. Ankit Agarwal, STL’s managing director, said the investment is part of STL’s focus to “showcase our commitment to the region.”

“By being local, we can offer faster lead times, we can offer more customized solutions and just really be more agile in terms of making this partnership work,” he told Fierce.

STL is already fostering relationships with U.S. broadband providers, recently announcing two partnerships with Windstream and TruVista. Although the facility was inaugurated today – with government officials and industry groups in attendance – it actually began operations in Q1 of this year.

The Palmetto Plant spans over 168,000 square feet and will specialize in “future-ready optical solutions,” such as high fiber-count cables with smaller diameters and different types of ribbon cables.

But the facility isn’t just for making more product, Agarwal noted. It was also created to help operators tackle the skills shortage in the broadband industry.

“One of the thoughts we have is, how do we make our products in such a way that it either minimizes the need of trained manpower or reduces the time that they need to spend on installing the products on the field,” he said.

Something like an intermittently bonded ribbon cable is quick to deploy but also compact in size, Agarwal explained, thus it’s easy to transport, store or handle on the field.

“Similarly, we have what we call pre-connectorized solutions, so that the work on the field is much more plug and play and can save anywhere between 30-40% of the installation time,” he said.

And STL designed these products to not require any “specialized training.”

“That’s something we always keep in mind, not just the customer but the installer [as well].”

While Agarwal has seen signs of improvement in the workforce shortage, with some operators “investing themselves in doing more of the training,” he thinks the issue will likely persist in the foreseeable future.

“I still see a huge skill shortage, the available manpower will probably increase 10% to 15% per year. But I think more needs to be done to accelerate it,” he said. “It might even make sense to bring in resources from other countries to kind of bridge the gap over the next four to five years.”

The southeast U.S. seems to be a popular spot for fiber manufacturers. In neighboring North Carolina, CommScope invested $47 million to open two new fiber optic plants and Corning also opened a new facility there.

Asked if STL plans to increase the Palmetto Plant’s employee count in the future, Agarwal said “we will continue to evaluate that” as the company maintains ongoing partnerships with its customers.

“As those requirements increase, we certainly have the capability and availability to make that happen.”