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issue: March 2003 APPLIANCE Magazine

Connectors, Cables, Wire Harnesses
Bringing It All Together

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by Linda Abu-Shalback Zid, Associate Editor/Newsletter Editor

As appliances evolve with technologies to do more, more reliance is placed on connectors, cables, and wire harnesses to establish the power.

"More electronics are being integrated into appliances as sensor and control technology improves," says John Risch, sales and marketing manager of Electronic Products for Lumberg, Inc. (Midlothian, VA, U.S.) "The increased number of electronic components necessitates a reliable harnessing solution, since these components must be connected to control circuits," he says.

Establishing the Connection

Despite the positive factors stemming from new technologies, the connectors industry is still working hard to fight its way back from what is being called its "worst year in history" by Bishop & Associates, Inc., a St. Charles, IL, U.S.-based market research firm specializing in the global electronics connector market. According to Bishop, between 1981 and 2001, world demand for connectors declined in only 3 years: 1985, 1992, and 2001. Aside from being the industry's worst, the 19.1-percent decline of 2001 ended an 8-year span of consecutive growth.

This inlet/outlet cord connector 4730 from Schurter Inc. (Petaluma, CA, U.S.) allows for mounting directly to the rear of the enclosure, so a molded detachable cord set can be used. Because it is a single piece, the module requires no soldering or riveting, but is instead screw-mounted onto the backplane or enclosure for stability.

New technology may be a contributing factor to the potential rebound of the connector industry, though. According to Bishop, in the third quarter of 2002, public connector sales were up 5.8 percent, ending five consecutive quarters of year-over-year declining sales.

As a result, connector suppliers are optimistic, while realizing that cost will continue to be a driving factor for appliance OEMs in the near future.

Ronald Weber, new business development manager of Tyco Electronics Corporation (Harrisburg, PA, U.S.) tells APPLIANCE that appliance makers will continue to drive down costs while making improvements to product features such as manufacturability, reliability, reparability, and installability.

"Current economic conditions have likewise created a very aggressive competitive environment, and most manufacturers are taking advantage of this," he says.

Standards Lead the Way

This push-wire connector from Wago Corporation (Germantown, WI, U.S.) replaces twist-type connectors and is said to be the only spring pressure terminal in the market that accepts solid or stranded wire by simply pushing the wire into the contact.

Standardization and globalization are important driving forces in the appliance industry, which means that connectors suppliers also are driven by them. "More and more appliance companies are now designing products that meet the requirements of U.S., European, and Asian standards," says Faraz Hasan, national industry manager for JST Corporation (Waukegan, IL, U.S.).

"It is very common now to see appliances being designed in the U.S., manufactured in Mexico, and using components and PCBs manufactured in the Far East," he adds.

Rob Boyd, crimping products manager of Schleuniger, Inc. (Niles, MI, U.S.) agrees. "Whenever possible, rather than making special units for Europe or Asia, they try to use the features that will pass there as well as in the U.S."

RAST technology, a systems-based approach to designing connectors and harnesses, has been a standard in Europe that is slowly but surely making its way to other parts of the world. "About 80 percent of the connectors in Europe are already the RAST standard, and they're becoming more popular in New Zealand and Australia," says Mr. Risch of Lumberg. He adds that RAST is becoming more accepted in the U.S., but is taking a little longer to catch on due to initial costs. "The capital investment has already been written off for the machines using the existing technology, but the new technology requires further investment," he says.

And RAST is not only driving the connectors industry, but also the appliance industry as a whole. "With some interest in RAST within North America [we're] seeing redesign take place in appliances to accommodate RAST connectors and cables," says Jim Connors, appliance industry manager for Tyco. Integration of the technology is in place in crimp form and is under full review for true IDC (insulation displacement) RAST by North American OEMs for appliances built in 2004 and beyond, according to Mr. Connors.

The disparity between the use of crimp or IDC connectors is another difference between European and U.S. companies. While more than half the companies in Europe use IDC connectors, they are not yet as popular in the U.S., due to a need for initial capital investment and acceptance of this technology by engineers, Mr. Risch says.

The technology will catch on in the U.S., according to Mr. Fasan of JST. "It's the IDC style that the U.S. appliance industry will be seeing more of in the coming years," he says. Other benefits are said to be the reduction of miswiring, the ability for complete automation, cost reduction, and speed. There is another benefit, according to Mr. Fasan. "Studies have shown that harness defects can be reduced to 15 ppm using IDC RAST with complete automation, which is very difficult to achieve with the present crimp and poke technology."

Making the Most of Materials

Ark-Les Corporation (Stoughton, MA, U.S.) will launch a nylon-insulated solderless connector and terminal line in May. The company's new quick connect product line features a low insertion and high withdrawal force. The company is also releasing an insulated ring and spade terminal product line.

The materials used to make the connectors and wire harnesses are also becoming standardized, which will mean various changes in the upcoming year.

Mr. Hasan of JST says that plastic connectors are now required to have a UL flammability rating (flame retardancy rating) of UL94-V0. "This makes the appliances safer in the unlikely event of a fire," he says.

Underwriters Laboratories (UL) Standards Technical Panel for Electric Ranges is also requiring terminal blocks to accept either copper or aluminum wire, due to the popularity of using aluminum wire, which is less expensive than copper wire. Previous versions of the standard said the blocks had to accept one or the other, according to Mike Timberman, electro/electronic subsystem leader for Ranges at GE Appliances (Louisville, KY, U.S.).

"This just makes it a safer connection for everybody in the kitchen," he tells APPLIANCE.

"UL is pretty much the driving factor for changes like these, and they'll give us a heads up about a year in advance," he adds.

"We'll contact our suppliers and tell them what we have, and what the new change is." From there, Mr. Timberman says the OEM will either "let them be creative or give them more specific requirements."

And as always, cost is a driver. "If we can use a connector that's used across the industry, just by the sheer volume of it, we get a discount on price," Mr. Timberman says.

The materials used in connectors can also add to their durability, according to Dean Norton, marketing manager of Wago Corporation (Germantown, WI, U.S.). "Connectors are using better insulating materials such as Polyamide 6.6 (Nylon) and contact materials such as stainless steel clamping mechanisms." He adds that the mechanism's design adjusts to the wire size, "providing a fast, easy-to-use, maintenance-free, error-free, vibration-resistant, corrosion-resistant, and temperature-cycling-resistant connection."

Potentially hazardous materials are also affecting the connectors marketplace. For example, the European Parliament recently passed legislation mandating that lead and other hazardous substances be banned in electrical and electronic equipment sold in Europe by July 2006. Lead-free soldering in components is also being examined by the industry in Europe, Japan, and North America for adoption by the end of 2005.

Connecting with Cables

Environmental friendliness is also being implemented in the cables used to establish connections. For example, Lumberg has introduced its Lumflex cables, which are said to be halogen-free. While the cables are widely used in Europe, Lumberg is working to establish them in the U.S. Halogen-free products reportedly reduce toxic fumes and smoke production in case of fire. "Halogen-free is a market-driven product," says Susanne Mettberg, product specialist at Lumberg.

"Right now it is mostly in Europe, but with globalization it's just a question of time before it is the case all over the world," she adds.

Electri-Cord has also stepped up its environmental efforts. Since last year, the company has "totally removed all the hazardous metals" from its products, according to Jon Quinn of Electri-Cord Mfg. Co. (Westfield, PA, U.S.).

"It's not only exposing the consumers to these dangers, it's exposing the workers in the manufacturing locations. We have to totally remove it from the environment," he says.

Toward Reducing Costs

But while standardization and safety are key issues, another factor will always be part of the decision-making process when it comes to cables, connectors, and wire harnesses. "The largest driving force in the appliance industry is price," says Mr. Boyd of Schleuniger, Inc. "Customers need to make the same harnesses for less. This is the reason why much of the high-volume, low-tech work has been moving to China," he adds.

Mike Kelly, president of Inmark Sales Corp., agrees that production is moving to Asia. "Everybody is trying to drive cost down and be more competitive, so the result is a lot of people are tempted to go offshore."

Mr. Kelly says there are challenges in making harnesses offshore, particularly if the OEMs make frequent changes to their harnesses, or if they can't forecast well. "It is difficult to set up a relationship with a Far East company and be assured of ongoing quality and timely delivery," he says.

Another way companies are reducing costs is by incorporating subassemblies. Mr. Quinn of Electri-Cord says that more customers are asking Electri-Cord for the integration of the power cord into the wiring harness. "Rather than buying them from two different suppliers, they are coming to us and asking for everything from the wall to places within the machine," he says.

The Bergquist Company (Chanhassen, MN, U.S.) has also made custom assemblies for an appliance maker. When the manufacturer wanted a simpler, faster solution to an electric assembly, Bergquist used one fully insulated and one non-insulated push-on spade terminal. The custom cable assembly was composed of a special butt splice to connect a wide variety of fully insulated fast-on terminals, a box header, and non-insulated terminal with a forked spade. The custom assembly condensed 11 SKUs into just one part number to significantly cut inventory management and costs, the company says.

The new RSF RAST 5PS Series from JST Corporation (Waukegan, IL, U.S.) is designed in accordance with the European RAST 5 Specifications for spacing, keying, and polarization. A contact locking spring reportedly prevents accidental unmating, making it ideal for high-vibration environments.

"Many manufacturers have outsourced cable/harness assembly to contract manufacturers," according to Rick Dorney, marketing and sales manager, Connector Division, at Ark-Les Corp. (Stoughton, MA, U.S.).

"Today, about 75 percent of connectors are purchased at the OEM level. The trend is quickly moving to a balance where in 3 or 4 years, 50 percent of connectors will be purchased by contract electronics manufacturers (CEMs), which are also referred to as cable assembly or subcontract houses," he adds.

Tim Brown, vice president, Marketing and Sales of Ark-Les says CEMs are also under constant cost pressure and that is changing the way terminals are specified. "We are beginning to see manufacturers 'genericizing' specifications for terminals," he says.

"It was common for specifications from some OEMs to call out a specific part number and vendor for a terminal locking the purchaser into a sole source," Mr. Brown says. "The trend today is to provide more flexibility in sourcing by calling out a specific bundle of physical characteristics and performances for the terminal, which allows a variety of qualified vendors to meet and compete on cost."


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