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issue: July 2007 APPLIANCE Magazine

Cord & Cord Sets
Plugging Safety

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by Leanna Skarnulis, Contributing Editor

In the world of cord and cord set suppliers, electrical safety is a powerful, complex, and dynamic force. Consumers, OEMs, and regulating bodies demand more and more safety features. And with nations developing their own, sometimes idiosyncratic, standards, the challenge to the global supplier is daunting.

Phihong has developed a USB adapter with a series of interchangeable plugs. Designated the PSB05R Series, the 5W adapter is available with four interchangeable clip adapter plugs said to work in virtually any power outlet around the world. Applications include wireless communications, peripherals, portable equipment, and networking.

But safety isn’t all that suppliers must consider. There’s also the skyrocketing costs of commodities and the matter of complying with RoHS and the disparate needs of OEMs.

K. F. Ng, product safety manager for Volex Power Products (Singapore), works frequently with appliance OEMs to ensure safety of new designs. “The OEMs’ goal is to give the customer a nicer look, not just something off the shelf, and the challenge is the design they want doesn’t always meet safety regulations. There are times we have to negotiate between the customer and the safety agency if the deviations do not cause a safety hazard. For example, there are specifications for connectors that are removable from appliances, and the customer might want to alter the dimensions or shape. Sometimes the modification the customer wants might not pose a safety hazard.  If it does, we act as consultant between OEMs and the safety agency to come to a compromise.”

Volex Power Products is a new division under Volex Group PLC for the manufacture and supply of electrical power cords and cable assemblies to OEMs for consumer and industrial markets that include computer and office equipment, white goods, power tools, small appliances, lighting, and medical equipment.

Gregor Kysely, president of Feller LLC (Leland, NC, U.S.) says OEMs are increasingly interested in cords with fuses, GFCI or ALCI, to address concerns of safety. “Also, product robustness is of interest to surpass the minimum UL requirements and meet the demands of consumer use and abuse.  We are working with customers to upgrade cords that already meet safety requirements and address specific end-user applications.” Feller recently moved its U.S. operations from New Jersey to North Carolina. Kysely says, “The recent expansion will allow Feller to become a fully integrated manufacturer to fulfill customer demands with quick turn around as well as increased inventory.”

But in the industrialized world that treats many appliances like commodities, the fashionable toaster bought last year gets tossed when OEMs introduce sexier models. How robust do cords need to be? “A big challenge for the cord industry is the need to lower cost while maintaining safety,” says Ng. One cost-cutting strategy would be to consider the life of the appliance. “People do not use appliances for a lifetime—they might keep a coffeemaker for five years—so maybe we do not have to make cords to last a lifetime but still meet the minimum safety requirement.”

The UniStrip 2600, a programmable stripping machine from Schleuniger, has many unique applications that include power cords and multiple conductors with different lengths, all in one cycle. A graphical display allows the operator to view a schematic diagram of the cable end, complete with programmed dimensions.

Safety Drives Innovation of Locking Connectors

Concert-goers pay big bucks to see their favorite entertainers and hear them at mega-decibels. The cords that deliver power to portable audio equipment can pose a hazard. No one wants to risk a fire in a crowded entertainment venue.

“There are minimum and maximum forces at which the connector can be plugged and unplugged,” says Ng. “Some customers want the unplugging force to be greater, but if we do that for them the product will not meet safety standards.”

Volex innovated a solution, the V-LOCK which locks the connector in place. Ng explains that it meets plugging force standards because force is measured between the contacts of the connector and terminals of the inlet.

“Initially we made the V-LOCK for big Japanese OEMs in the audio industry. However it caused quite a stir when we exhibited it in London for the Sound and Audio show. Another market will be hospitals, where if equipment gets disconnected it can be serious.”

Unicable Inc., has introduced new test equipment and procedures. All cords are 100 percent dielectric, polarity, and continuity tested. If a cord fails a test, a locking function holds it in place until it is unlocked, cut, and removed by a quality assurance manager.

RoHS Rules and Commodity Costs

Ever since the European Union adopted the Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive (RoHS) in 2003 and mandated compliance by July 1, 2006, suppliers of cords and cord sets to global markets have been feeling the impact. “Harmonization of materials to meet RoHS causes all end products to move in this direction regardless of the need for specification,” says Larry Oden, senior engineer for Unicable, Inc. (Bowling Green, KY, U.S.).

Richard Loh, director of engineering and quality for Volex Power Products, concurs. “We have implemented European RoHS compliance as the minimum requirement for all power cords in spite of the fact that only European products are being affected. Volex continues to provide assurance to customers on the robustness of the established management system of hazardous substances by working with ASTA on RoHS certification and fully supports customers on their compliance to the latest China RoHS requirement.”

Then there’s the possibility that the United States will adopt RoHS sometime next year, says Kysely. “Feller, being headquartered in Europe, has been RoHS compliant since late 2003.” Not every country is eager to adopt the RoHS standard, and that presents a big challenge for suppliers and OEMs. Kysely remarks, “In the past few years we have experienced more countries establishing their own electrical code. Hence there is more diversification and a lot more approval and tooling costs involved. For example, Taiwan, Thailand, and now Brazil are enforcing their own new standards.”

In terms of commodities, copper prices have the biggest impact. “The highest content used in manufacturing of power cords is copper, where prices are up 80 percent,” says Loh. “Volex is able to pass the increase to customers and on the other hand continue with hedging and risk management on the commodity price.”

Copper is not the only material having an impact on the cord industry. Kysely says dramatic cost increases have been seen with PVC used for extrusion as well as over molds, and with pins, connectors, and tabs.

Global suppliers must be proactive when it comes to continually changing safety standards and OEMs’ design innovations. Volex Power Products’ safety manager visits the respective test labs around the world and works with agencies on new testing criteria to ensure that new and/or customized products meet these test criteria. His involvement also allows Volex to provide quicker turnaround time for new product development.

Disparate Needs Drive Cord Design

OEMs’ disparate needs send trends in different directions. So it’s true there’s a trend toward specialization but also a trend toward harmonization. And a trend toward cost as the main driver but also a trend toward costlier value-added features.

Unicable, Inc., works with OEMs to develop products—cords and harnesses—that help the assembly process of the end product and as a partner in development of proprietary designs. Oden says, “We do not see specialization so much as continuing interest in globalization and harmonization to reduce SKUs.”

Ng concurs. “There’s a trend for OEMs to push for the harmonization of the different plugs used in different countries, but it’s a big challenge,” he says. “However the whole world is more receptive towards harmonizing cable, which will level the playing field for manufacturers.”

Kysely notes that there’s a market for high volume, where cost drives everything, and there’s a market that is driven to make an appealing, safer, more reliable product. “Especially in the appliance industry there is product designed for a life of five years, and there is product for 10 to 20 year life. Feller certainly falls into the second category.”

Loh points out that OEMs are designing solutions for humanized technology. “Thus there are stringent requirements for ergonomic product profiles, reductions of size, and environmentally friendly RoHS-compliant materials used on the product.”

He adds that Volex is positioned to handle the disparate needs of OEMs with a multisite, fully integrated ERP manufacturing system to cater to the needs of customers from different industries. “We also must strategically maintain safety stocks of finished products and raw materials coupled with a responsive and flexible supply chain to further complement our ERP system.”

Converts to Converter Plugs

Volex Power Products’ V-LOCK Power Distribution Unit is part of the V-LOCK range of products, which won the Innovative Product award at the PLASA 2006 show in London. Designed to prevent accidental loss of power to
equipment, V-LOCK uses an integral locking feature on the power cord connector with a secure locking inlet. It is said to withstand a force of 25 kg. Applications for the Power Distribution Unit include networking and computer servers and lighting and entertainment systems.

Any attempts to streamline appliance production for a global market hit the wall when it comes to plugs. Within that problem lies the opportunity for a niche market for converter plugs, a market seized upon by PowerConnections (Harlow, Essex, U.K.). Alan Tadd, owner and managing director, says converter plugs were first introduced just 13 years ago and that his company is the leading supplier to OEMs, importers, and exporters.

He says use of converter plugs by appliance manufacturers is growing, and the company counts Sony, Black and Decker, JVC, Conair, and Braun Gillette among its customers. “These products provide global OEMs with the means of reducing their SKUs and logistical costs and provide a low-risk market entry strategy to those markets with their own plug systems, such as the U.K., Australia, South Africa, and Switzerland.”

Advantages of converter plugs include enabling customers to reduce stockholding costs in warehouses servicing Pan European and global markets without needing to hold dedicated stock for smaller markets, reducing stock obsolescence by enabling products to be moved between markets or enabling end-of-line special promotions, increasing stock availability for their customers and reducing in store out of stocks, and eliminating the need to return goods to distant factories for rework.

Tadd cites another important advantage for appliance OEMs. “All PowerConnections products are approved by local regulatory bodies and our factories carry ISO 9002 approval. We hold a strong portfolio of patents and intellectual property which gives us a unique market position and protects customers from the supply of unapproved and inferior quality counterfeit product.” 

Suppliers mentioned in this article:
Feller LLC
Schleuniger Inc.
Unicable Inc.
Volex Inc.

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