Microwave Cable Components: Cost & Price Factors for RF Cable Wire

Loading the Elevenlabs Text to Speech AudioNative Player...
Copper coaxial cable close-up

How much does high-performance RF Cable Wire cost?

One of the questions any metal purchaser is going to ask when researching material options is, "what is the price of silver-plated copper, high-strength copper, or copper-clad wire for RF cable conductors?"

At Ulbrich, we've answered this question thousands of times over the years, and these days, hundreds of prospective metal buyers will ask us for quotes or estimates every year -- and many folks will raise the question in the first few minutes of our conversations.

We get it.

As a professional buyer, you're working with a limited budget to buy all the materials you're charged with purchasing. Your goal is, at least partially, to help your company to manufacture its goods economically and maximize its profitability, and lower scrap rate. The cost of materials from all sources, lead times, plus metals at time of shipment, and surcharge are just a small collection of things you're thinking about as you purchase metal and go about your day. This is without mentioning how you need to ensure that you have enough material to satisfy your production schedule.

The job of a materials purchaser certainly wasn't made any easier over the last 12 months, either. With most metals shooting up in price, "metals charges" nearing all-time highs, and some lead times breathing down the neck of a calendar year.

So, how much does conductor materials such as flat or round silver-plated copper wire cost? What's the going rate for copper-clad aluminum wire? Well, like many other metals used for manufacturing, the answer is: it depends.

One of the most critical mistakes a materials purchaser for RF cable applications can make is not taking the time to properly research the best options in wire suppliers as it pertains to their unique needs. The truth is that the price of wire can fluctuate based on many variables. Throughout this article, we'll discuss the factors that cause the cost of metal wire needed to make RF cables go up or down.

The commodity market adds variability to the cost of raw and engineered materials used to produce RF Cable wire

Commodity Market

Many of the materials used to make RF Cables are affected by fluctuations in the commodity markets such as silver and copper. Prices of iron ore, copper, silver, and other commodities have been volatile around the world in part due to the pandemic.

Silver is integral to numerous B2B and B2C products from aerospace RF Cable to photography, jewelry, and coins.

These materials' high electrical conductivity and silver's durability give these metals industrial and technological applications, with almost every computer, mobile phone, aircraft, and appliance containing silver and copper. The market prices for these materials can cause the cost of both silver and copper wire to move up or down for manufacturing buyers.

Similarly, much like what we've all experienced during the pandemic period, supply chain issues can have downstream effects on the price of all types of raw materials used to produce RF Cables. From metals to plastics or ceramics, the availability of materials within the supply chain can cause the price to move up or down depending on the context of the current economic environment. It is even more important for buyers to choose wire producers with extensive relationships with many supply sources in times like these. These manufacturers should also have contingencies in place in case of upstream production interruptions or supply chain issues for acquiring the materials their customers need.

High order volumes lower the cost of silver-plated copper & copper-clad aluminum or stainless wire

It will not surprise most RF industry buyers that order volume has an inverse relationship with silver and copper wire price. The more wire you intend to purchase, the lower price you will pay for fabricating a given length or unit of weight of that wire.

However, in addition to this – within the wire & cable marketplace itself, there is another typical distinction that comes with order volumes which impact the cost of materials. Typically when you're looking at the lower prices within the overall marketplace for high volume items, you're looking at wire being purchased in tonnage. These large quantities or large orders are often produced to broad material requirements accompanied by very, very competitive pricing in part because of economies of scale, but also because the type of wire being purchased in those quantities is more than likely to be a wire with a low-to-mid-range performance which is used in applications which are not demanding in regards to the material's mechanical, electrical, or signal-bearing properties.

Cellular Network Cables

This type of wire is used to make cables for mainstream, top of the bell curve, purposes ranging from networking ethernet cables to RF cables used in commercial aircraft where the cables are massively mass-produced and dimensional, weight, and signal properties are not highly critical.

Conversely, lower volume orders tend to be associated with the fabrication price of silver-plated copper or copper-clad materials going up. This principle applies to smaller wire orders for applications where precision is non-critical but is embodied by wire used in critical and demanding applications. In these applications where performance, dimensional and mechanical uniformity, and other characteristics throughout the length of the wire are critical, order volumes tend to be lower because of how custom the product needs to be and the fidelity and niche usage of the material. Manufacturers seeking higher performance wire for applications in outer space, for example, or for use in R&D or cutting edge early production applications can expect the price of their materials to be much higher due to many factors, including volume.

Performance and engineering demands effect prices for wire used to make RF Cables

  • .002” x .040” SPC Wire Qty: 75lbs
  • .002” x .040” SPC Wire Qty: 75lbs

These two inquiries for silver-plated copper wire may look identical in terms of thickness and width but one of these items may come with a cost of over 10X the other. But why? The answer is that highly engineered product pricing is typically not directly based on cost. It's based on value added to the wire through highly engineered production variables such as being manufactured to extremely tight tolerances in terms of, plating thickness, electrical properties, and/or mechanical properties, etc. As a result of the intensive engineering used to produce the material with exacting precision, the value shows itself in product consistency, reliability, performance, uniformity, and repeatability.

F-22 Raptor Fighter Jet

How higher performance needs increase price

The wire used to produce cables that meet the high-performance demands of critical applications such as aerospace, defense, and testing, requires significantly more engineering to create. The wire used for these applications will be highly customized; manufactured to the unique requirements of the buyer using technologically advanced equipment and highly trained personnel. Producers of high-performance wire for RF Cable manufacturing, such as silver-plated copper wire or copper-clad steel wire, often go so far as to monitor the dimensional consistency of their tooling, using advanced testing equipment. These measures ensure that tooling isn't introducing variability to the product's critical and precise characteristics. The time, equipment, quality, and consistency of the raw materials and level of engineering support needed and supplied by a wire manufacturer who produces a more highly engineered precision product will be much more significant – which results in higher prices.

It goes without saying that because this is a more highly engineered wire, the scrap rate for the buyer will be reduced because there is no performance variation leading to higher output rates.

How lower performance needs keep prices lower

Suppose performance is not critical for your application. In that case, the price of silver-plated copper wire, copper-clad aluminum, or copper-clad steel wire will typically be lower than a higher performance wire because it won't have the rigorous requirements attached to its consistency and characteristics. This wire may not be produced using multiple passes through a wire rolling mill at all. Instead, it may be run through once at high speed, reducing its thickness substantially in one go, and that will be enough. Because the need for fine-tuning the characteristics of the wire through multiple passes, small reductions, and constant measurement are not required when the only critical aspects are the wire's thickness and width, not dimensional or mechanical stability.

Coaxial Radio Frequency Cables

Needs surrounding mechanical properties can make the price of wire go up

Your needs regarding the mechanical properties of the wire you buy to produce RF Cable also have a reasonable impact on the price. The more properties you require the manufacturer to hold to a specific value or range causes the price of the wire to go up. This is because of the engineering involved in balancing and holding the various properties throughout the dimensions of the wire. There is more work, and therefore more value introduced as more properties are specified as being critical. With that said, there is extreme upside for procurement teams to specify these properties. By identifying multiple properties such as tensile, yield, and elongation – or by working with their wire producer to define them, a buyer will benefit from highly consistent material optimized for their specific use case, manufacturing equipment, and needs.

Less demanding applications, where manufacturing equipment and processes are deployed that do not have the burden of outputting extremely high performance cable do not need to worry so much about micro-managing the precise mechanical properties of the wire they use to make their wares. This helps procurement teams buying this type of RF cable wire to keep cost and price lower and gives them access to purchasing wire in large quantities economically.

What other factors cause the price of copper wire to be higher or lower?

Plating thickness

When buying silver-plated copper wire for your RF Cable production needs, the silver content and silver plating thickness play a part in driving the price of the wire up or down. Many buyers assume that the material is plated after rolling or drawing as the last operation in wire production, but this is not always the case. Plating sometimes comes before rolling, and in other cases it is done after the wire is at or near its final thickness and width – it depends on many factors we won't go into, and sometimes varies from manufacturer to manufacturer as well. The thickness of the plating and silver content of the finished product impacts pricing regardless.

Merely specifying the silver thickness or silver content required often has an impact on price. Suppose your application demands a specialized plating thickness within a tight tolerance of variability throughout the length of the wire in order to meet your spec. In that case, the price of that wire will go up due to the precision needed. This also requires you to seek out a manufacturer who possesses the specialized tools and expertise needed to produce the wire with that level of accuracy and consistency.

There are other ways that the silver-plating thickness may impact price. For example, the specification you're working with may indicate that you need a silver thickness of 40 microinches to meet your spec. Still, suppose you're encountering issues in terms of signal loss in the final product. In that case, you may need to consult with a wire manufacturer with expertise in metallurgy who can analyze your unique manufacturing processes and equipment. The plating thickness or some other property required by your spec may not be sufficient or may be incompatible to some extent with your operations. The wire producer may recommend evolving your internal spec to 60 microinches min or even 80 because that additional silver can improve the overall signal transmission of the cable. This leads to an improved signal carriage, reduced signal loss, and ultimately enhances the signal's speed. However, increasing the thickness of the silver will increase the cost of your silver-plated copper material.

Aspect Ratio

silver-plated and copper material wire on spools

The relationship between the thickness and the width of the wire can cause the price of copper clad aluminum, steel, or silver-plated copper to increase or decrease. The aspect ratio between thickness and width of the wire can influence prices an RF Cable buyer will experience.

Different aspect ratios increase the amount of cold work required to produce the finished wire product. The cold work, as well as the other precision factors detailed throughout the article can cause the price of these wires to be higher.

Suppose your application doesn't demand high aspect ratio wire, and instead utilizes a more standard width to thickness ratio. In that case, this will cause the price of your wire to be lower than a higher aspect ratio wire of a similar configuration.

When you need difficult aspect ratios and tolerances get tighter, the price of that material will be higher. A pricier wire is produced using more operations, at slower speeds, and utilizes more advanced equipment and people to make.

Alloy Requirements

This is likely unsurprising to most buyers, but different alloys have different costs associated with them. Standard 110 ETP (Electro tough pitch) is typically lower priced than the more pure 102 oxygen-free copper. Other alloys that are usually priced higher are other non-standard materials that have certain properties imbued into them that result in higher performance, such as copper-clad aluminum or copper-clad steel. These specialty cladded wires are typically more costly than standard copper wire or silver-plated copper for many reasons, including the difficulty of acquiring these alloys and the high level of technical expertise required to process them. Specialty alloys such as these are typically more challenging to manufacture, have lower availability in the marketplace, and this will usually show up in the material's price.

Suppose your RF Cable application doesn't have specialized demands pertaining to the alloy used, and you can get away with a standard commodity copper material. In that case, the price of your wire material will be considerably lower.

Fast Fourier Transform (FFT) Requirements

Recently, the marketplace has begun to see a push for improvements in helical wrap wires that will allow cables to increase in bandwidth and overall length. The prevailing solution for this problem is by improving FFT for better VSWR (Voltage Standing Wave Ratio) performance. This is something you will surely look to improving if you often encounter failure or undesirable performance results from your finished product.

Fast Fourier Transform is one of the most important algorithms in the information sciences and essential for ensuring performance in precision RF Cable wire manufacturing. Wire manufacturers such as Ulbrich Specialty Wire Products monitor FFT like it's our Coinbase account looking for any irregularities such as variations of diameter, eccentricity, and capacitance pose a risk for data transmission in the final cable product.

This is high-tech stuff we're talking about here and cable producers or assemblers who absolutely cannot have signal loss issues should look to partner with wire manufacturers who have expertise in rolling wire and drawing with optimal VSWR. Consider the big picture as well, as your current wire suppliers may be doing some FFT measurement, but there are challenges to trying to pick up FFT variation on something that's very thin. You may need to diversify your supply base to include a partner capable of measuring Fast Fourier Transform data at extremely high resolution in order to identify the root cause of your signal challenges and make micro-adjustments inline as the wire is being rolled in order to achieve your desired result.

Satellite in Space Orbiting Earth

The demands placed on high performance cables these days are getting more extreme, requiring unprecedented levels of precisions. Higher frequencies and longer link cables are becoming more prevalent in the world today, which is another contributing factor.

Lower priced wire is probably not even being measured for FFT. Logically, this means that wire which is produced with minimizing signal loss and optimizing FFT for VSWR performance results in higher costs to the buyer. If you need high performance, and consistency, however, this increase is a small price to pay.

In contrast to wire monitored and optimized for FFT performance, lower priced RF Cable materials are usually just produced to a thickness and width and a plus or minus tolerance. If this is the case for your company, and the specification you're working with, then you will experience lower prices than a higher performance wire where signal consistency and higher frequency are absolutely critical.

In the end, the price of wire for RF Cable production depends on many variables

Ultimately, the price of your engineered wire materials will depend on the final cable you’re producing, as well as the unique needs of your business, engineers, customers, and the equipment used to assemble your final product.

Some RF cable manufacturers will be great fits for a standard wire product due to their needs and specific end use application not requiring extreme performance or highly customized attributes. Others, such as those manufacturing cables used in lab test & measure equipment, space exploration, research or military applications need their wires to have highly specific properties and/or require highly precise dimensional consistency. It may seem cliché, but the best way to get pricing for the material you need is to contact a wire manufacturer like Ulbrich and have a conversation about the cables you’re producing, including materials, the performance characteristics you need that cable to exhibit and the conditions of end-use. Only then will you have a clear understanding of what’s needed to meet the requirements and product goals.

Satellite dish

Ulbrich Specialty Wire Products is a leader in producing wire materials within the RF Cable space that adhere to, and oftentimes exceed, the requirements set by the most rigorous and demanding specifications. Our state of the art wire manufacturing facility located in Westminster, SC has served this market for many years, and employs some of the most sophisticated engineers in the country who help our customers meet the challenges they face in producing high performance cables every day.

We'd love to hear more about your challenges in optimizing your cable's signal bearing properties and producing high frequency, high performance RF Cables. Reach out today and speak to one of our highly skilled engineers and product managers about your application.

All articles

Related Posts