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issue: July 2008 APPLIANCE Magazine

Connectors and Wire Harnesses
Connectors: More for Less


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by Leanna Skarnulis, Contributing Editor

Suppliers of connectors and wire harnesses are helping appliance engineers slash cost by reducing part count and exploring new materials. Easier assembly and testing also cut manufacturing resources and labor.

The PowerMod HP (high power)–series connector family has touch-safe female housings, cable strain relief, and integral positive latches. The connectors come from Anderson Power Products (Sterling, MA, U.S.; www.andersonpower.com). The HP series is RoHS compliant and rated up to 450 A for applications at a 30°C temperature rise. APP has patented the Sterling contact technology to offer low electrical resistance and provide a minimum of 500 mating cycles, and it is rated for circuit interruption (true hotplug). The connectors are IP20-rated (touch safe) for user safety. The integral coding key provides further protection by allowing the user to configure unique mating of up to six individual connectors.

When it comes to appliance trends affecting the connector and wire harness industry, Cory Thiel has just three words: “features, features, features.”

Thiel is product manager, Interconnect, for Wago Corp. (Germantown, WI, U.S.; www.wago.com). “The explosion of commercial-grade, or at least commercially styled, appliances purchased for home use offers an array of functions far beyond grandma’s old range. Whether fully utilized by the consumer or not—by comparison, I know I don’t use even half the available functions on my smart phone—many features have become market ‘must haves.’ Consequently, the appliance designer must cram an ever-increasing number of functions, such as operator input devices, sensors, and circuitry, into smaller and smaller spaces. At the same time, in order to stay competitive on a global scale, production must drive toward Six Sigma–level quality.”

Thiel says it remains to be seen whether the current economic situation will have a lasting negative impact on consumer spending on premium appliances with a corresponding refocus on core functionality. “My bet, after this year’s hiccup, is ‘No’.”

More Electronics, Less Space

Two drivers of change are being felt in the connectors and wire harness industry as appliance OEMs pack more electronics into products and strive for greater energy efficiency. “There’s a shift toward electronics and away from electromechanical devices for higher-end appliances, such as laundry timers,” says James Connors, director of appliances and HVAC, Tyco Electronics (Harrisburg, PA, U.S.; www.tyco.com). “Also, there are a lot of custom motor I/Os going on relative to additional motor electronics driven by energy efficiency, requiring changes in the structure of the motor. With that is an opportunity for design enhancements.”

At the same time, space for boards and components is at a premium. “You can’t just take an off-the-shelf system all the time,” says Jeff Hummel, product manager for Tyco. “You have to develop new systems to fit a certain way in the end appliance to efficiently and effectively mate the connector while maximizing the use of available space.”

In addition, there are more LED lighting solutions and integrated sensors, such as water temperature sensors, and even monitoring and diagnostic sensors that can help service technicians troubleshoot. “These sensors are included on high-end units, and more appliance manufacturers globally are starting to look at incorporating them,” says Connors. “Industry-standard products may or may not work in those applications. Our development and product engineers are currently working with customers to develop new products for these applications.”

Tyco also has resident engineers, such as Hummel, assigned to one large OEM. “Part of my job is to understand the application early in the design cycle. The earlier you have both parties involved, the better the outcome.”

Today everything in an appliance, from harnesses to connectors, is designed in 3-D, says Hummel. “A key part of our service is providing 3-D models on our Web site so that engineers can pull them into their design to assess fit and form.”

Responding to the addition of electronically controlled features and benefits, connector manufacturers are developing more board-to-board–type interconnects, says Ted Worroll, product manager for ITT Interconnect Solutions (Santa Ana, CA, U.S.; www.ittcannon.com). One example is its Universal Contact for use within wireless product lines, along with the use of LCD connectors and miniature RF connectors where transmitting is required. “Because of the electronic nature of these features, many customers are requiring custom value-added connectors rather than standard devices to meet appliance specifications.”

The Combo D series of filtered D-sub connectors from ITT is designed for power applications and features size-8 power contacts with an optional integrated filter planar array. Its low profile and eurostyle brackets provide significant space savings, while the D-sub design provides increased reliability and robustness.

Reducing Waste and Rework

One way Wago helps manufacturers reduce waste or rework is with test ports on all products designed to allow technicians safe and easy access for circuit testing. If there is ever a need to troubleshoot, a technician can easily test continuity through a splicing device from the supplier.

“With the 222 or 773 series, for example, you can check the connection point through that test port rather than having to stick a probe into a wire nut or, in some cases, even disconnecting it to get at the wires,” says Thiel. “Many competitors will require you to stick a probe into the same opening where the wires are inserted, and that can be difficult because of both orientation and available space. Especially with larger gauge and/or multiple wires, there’s just no room to get in there. We put test ports in places that make more sense.”

Improving Manufacturing Efficiency

The Ampomator System III leadmaker from Tyco Electronics is a flexible system with “smart applicators” designed to reduce setup times for customers that typically perform higher mix, smaller volume jobs.

In designing the System III, personnel visited with more than 100 users including machine operators, plant managers, and quality engineers. “Feed issues were specifically identified as a major source of machine downtime because of the constant readjustment of the feed,” says Douglas Slabinski, global industry director. “Without proper terminal feed, the possibility of rejects and even tool breakage increases, resulting in lower machine uptime and higher costs.”

Advice from OEM plant floors resulted in a new applicator design that reduces feed position variation and makes adjustments easier through an electronic keypad. “These are the keys to better productivity—easy setup and a stable process,” Slabinski says.

Heyco Products Inc. (Toms River, NJ, U.S.; www.heyco.com) focuses much attention on making products that reduce material and labor costs, says Vince Giglio, director of engineering. A new product example is the Snap-in Cordgrip, suitable for power supplies, control panels, medical imaging equipment, and other applications. “With other cordgrips you have to go into a clearance hole or threaded hole so there’s the additional cost of a nut that you thread onto it,” says Giglio. “They also take two people to assemble. We were at an appliance manufacturer’s assembly line where a competitor’s cordgrip needed someone to push it through and someone at the back of the line to thread it in. By having a cordgrip that snaps in from the front side, it takes additional labor out.”

KADO 2/3 is part of a line of next-generation compact cable connection boxes from TridonicAtco (Innsbruck, Austria; www.tridonicatco-ct.com). The line can be used for gas stoves, cooktops (hobs), and small household appliances. The line is designed with a compact configuration, faster cable (AWG 18-14) assembly, compatibility with RAST 5 plugs, a new robust hinge mechanism, clear pole labeling, and a screwless one-for-all strain relief. The same cutout is used as for the previous-generation KADO 1/3 IMP. It conforms to EN 60335/1:2002 (glow wire test at 750°C) and UL 94 VO.

Designing Components to Reduce Part Count

He adds that Heyco is often asked to look at a manufacturer’s overall assembly and design a component that combines several parts into one. “It saves them the stocking of additional parts, the cost of additional parts, and the labor of installing them,” Giglio explains.

Worroll cites overmolding as a popular means of cost reduction in harnessing. Another cost-saving trend is mixing power and signal contacts for multiple functionality in one component that, in addition to reducing cost, minimizes space and provides sealing for increased reliability. One example is ITT’s Stacking Interconnect system. “It combines power and signal, eliminates up to five different power and signal connectors for a compact design, and features IP67 sealing, making it ideal for electrical connections with exposure to fluid or water spills.”

Investment of capital has helped Mega Electronics (New Brunswick, NJ, U.S.; www.megaelectronics.com) achieve greater efficiencies internally by reducing staff, says Guy Francfort, vice president of sales and marketing. “We have recently upgraded our production and materials-handling software, which is allowing for growth without adding more people. Basic operations that would take us one-half hour to achieve have been reduced to minutes.”

Reducing Materials Costs

The cost of materials is the biggest driver in the industry today, says Francfort. “The fluctuation of copper has made it extremely difficult to have a standard price structure. We encourage our customers to lock in orders for extended periods of time to control costs.

Francfort sees some manufacturers compromising quality to cut costs by using recycled copper. “This has the result of lowering the cost of the material, but long-term can be a very risky option for lowering initial costs. Recycled copper can become brittle over time and in flexing situations can break down and fail. We see more requirements for flex tests among high-end appliance manufacturers. Being that we use no recycled copper in our manufacturing processes, we have no problem passing these tests. Our initial costs may be higher, but our long-term total costs are lower.”

Tyco helps OEMs and harness makers reduce materials costs by working with them on parts consolidation and standardization, says Connors. “We have a number of standard products that are available off the shelf. If they will compile a list of approved products, and stick to that list, it will help drive total applied costs down as volume increases.”

The company also looks at alternative materials and analyzes applications for additional savings. “A lot of companies use plated terminals that don’t need to be plated,” says Slabinski, “so our product managers and engineers work with customers to eliminate plating they don’t need and reduce the cost.”

Nylon is the principal material used in Heyco products. “We’re always looking for new types of nylon or more cost-effective nylon to bring the cost of piece parts down,” says Giglio. “We are also looking at environmentally friendly non-petroleum-based plastics such as a PLA, which is a biodegradable thermoplastic derived from lactic acid. Lactic acid can be obtained from renewable starches such as corn, wheat, or sugar beets. At this time these plastics don’t have the mechanical properties or operating temperature ranges equivalent to most nylons, but they are constantly improving.”

Snap-in Cordgrips from Heyco Products reduce labor costs by eliminating the need for threading. They’re designed for power supplies, control panels, medical imaging equipment, and other applications.

Global Standards

Doing business globally increasingly means compliance with international standards. The International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) requires glow wire testing of housing materials to ensure that they meet fire safety standards in the event of overheating. “The standard is specific to the European Community, but we’re seeing more and more requests where exports are going into Europe that will require standardization in the industry globally,” says Hummel.

RAST is another European standard gaining popularity globally, primarily in laundry appliances and dishwashers. “It’s mainly in higher-end models, but we now see it emerging in the lower end,” says Hummel, whose management area includes RAST products. “We’re starting to see it more with manufacturers that serve markets in Mexico and South America.”

He says RAST delivers applied cost savings to customers. “Savings are based on the abilities of the harness machines, and there are specific benefits from quality improvement so connectors aren’t mismated, and also higher efficiency on the line where they’re assembled at a higher, consistent rate without mismating. Also, as the product flows through the line, there’s less chance of damage to the harness.”

Francfort says that 90% of Mega Electronics’ customers require compliance with RoHS. “A smaller percentage raise their requirements to an art form of requiring excessive testing as a standard. They would have tests for every possible contaminant in the world until they are confronted with the cost. We try to have as broad a test base as possible and offer to do additional extensive tests for a fee. When confronted with the cost of testing, the majority of the customers back off their demands.”

One of the newer regulations driving change for OEMs and suppliers is REACH, which regulates chemicals to protect human health and the environment. It applies to European products and products entering Europe. “It primarily has to do with chemicals used in production that might be carcinogens,” says Giglio. “It affects the materials used in fabrication, and gets down to the polymer level for raw materials.”

Europe’s environmental initiatives continue spreading to other global markets, sometimes adding costs to components and end products. Ongoing efforts by connector and wire harness suppliers, as well as OEM engineers, are finding new ways to cut costs through the use of new materials, part count reductions, and increased efficiency on the assembly line. 

 

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