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Cables & Connectors Choosing the right cables & connectors

Sep 1, 2016

Cables and connectors are integral to a system’s lifeline. This is especially true for connections between the power supply and load. The feature discusses the important considerations to be taken into account when deciding on which type of cables and connectors to use for any specific application.

Most industrial equipment, whether intended for indoor or outdoor use, contain extensive electrical wiring between its components and subsystems, which involves cabling and connectivity. During the equipment’s run time, if a cable or connector breaks down, the entire system can stop. Cable reliability is based on both durability and signal integrity, and the ideal cable system should be engineered to last the life of the product in any environment. The feature discusses various facets and opinions in making the proper selection of cables & connectors with expert ideas from Rainer Schmidt, Business Development Manager, Industrial Cabling, Harting Electronics; Marc Jarrault, Managing Director, Lapp India; and Raman Kalra, General Manager, Fischer Connectors India.

Role of cabling and connectivity

Cables are often the last component considered during system designs. In many situations, cables are really the system’s lifeline. They are a major part of the passive infrastructure of networks – doesn’t matter if it is working in office area or in industrial sides, e.g. automation networks. Signifying the role of cables today, Jarrault opines that it plays a prominent role in running ‘smart’ factories and an efficient cabling solution connects multiple components in an automated factory. Citing an instance, he explains, “Robots have become a crucial element of complex production processes and are used throughout the industry. As robots are always in motion, they must work accurately and reliably under stress, just like the corresponding cables, components and cable systems. Since even the smallest of interference can lead to high costs when it comes to production failures, cable manufacturers work towards manufacturing cables, which ensures smooth and reliable operations.”

Speaking further on the importance, Schmidt says, “If passive infrastructure cabling breaks down, the entire network is affected and stops. In an office area, this might cause a breakdown. In automation networks, it stops production processes and causes damages of millions of dollars very quickly.” Sharing his thoughts, Kalra avers, “Cabling and connectivity play dual roles, handling both signal and power. For signal, connectors and cables will impact the speed of data transfer, and protect the data from interference and maybe even from being stolen. From a power side, as automation increases and machines become smarter, we are finding requirements for more power in more places. Often, we will try to cable both signal and power together for ease of use.” Focusing on its dual benefits, he adds, “Many engineers may want to separate signal connectors from power connectors within a system. Although beneficial at times, the use of hybrid connectors and custom cable can be the ideal solution to reduce the connector count and save valuable real estate in a system.”

Ensuring reliable cable performance

Many of today’s applications have environmental influences that require unique materials and mechanical properties to ensure reliable cable performance. Commenting on the challenges to be addressed, Kalra opines, “In factory settings, temperature and moisture levels need to be addressed as you build your interconnect solution. In some extreme applications, you may need to go as far as integrating hermetically sealed connectors using glass seals to make sure that gases do not permeate into the interconnect. Wash-down areas may need plastics or stainless steel connectors to avoid corrosion. High-heat silicone cables are often used in medical applications so they can be sterilised, but they can also be used in factories where high heat is needed to form or assemble products, or where the interconnect solution must survive temperature spikes. From the mechanical side, robust strain relief components may be needed to prevent cable pull-out.”

Explaining further on the challenges faced in manufacturing units, Jarrault perceives that with the booming automation market, manufacturers with robots installed in their manufacturing units, are facing numerous challenges. “Critical activities with challenging applications often cannot deliver the perfect solution when it is not customised to the requirement,” he adds. On a forward note, Schmidt says being in close contact with the customers helps to know their applications and needs. “By doing so, we are able to communicate to customers in a very efficient manner and we can develop ‘Together’ specifications, 100% fit for their purpose. This allows us then to decide if we can use existing products or we have to go for new product developments,” he details.

To achieve higher ROI

Throughout the cable selection process, it is important to consider the total cost of ownership. Stating the factors to be considered for this, Jarrault says, “The costs include basic initial costs such as cost of components, installation, labour and testing and recurring costs such as labour, downtime and lost productivity costs due to testing and/or recabling.” On a further note, he adds, “Expected installed lifetime of the cabling plant; the kind of application over its useful life; timeframe during which standards, applications and electronics manufacturers will support the cabling plant; cost of active electronics; warranty length and covered components (parts, labour, applications) and price are the few factors to achieve ROI.” Speaking on his company’s development towards the goal, Kalra says, “We find ways to optimise connections and cables to simplify the user experience and reduce total cost of ownership (TCO). When time is lost because of complexity, or there are too many points to troubleshoot in a short period of time, the TCO can skyrocket in an instance.”

Further adding his comments towards achieving ROI, he notices that designing in smaller, denser connectors that carry both signal and power is one way to reduce complexity. “We have seen redesigns where we were able to replace two or three connectors with one small, dense connector and reduce the overall cost in the process. This not only saves money in connectors and cables, but it simplifies set up and operation of the device. Choosing the right material to begin with also impacts cost. Most people don’t want to pay for stainless steel connectors, but sometimes it is the right choice to avoid corrosion or breakage issues,” he adds. However, Schmidt believes that to consider aspects like ROI, you have to speak to the right people. “That means, we as manufacturer of investment goods, like cabling infrastructure, have to handle simple customer requests very often in the daily business. Customer wants to buy cables and connectors and asks for an offer according to a given specification. In this case, you don’t have a chance to discuss ROI in any way,” he adds.

Selecting the right combination

Using a systematic approach will help ensure in selecting the best cable for any specific application. Commenting on the role of system designer, Schmidt says, “The system designer has to think so as to fulfill the requirements of his client. To do so, he needs technological know-how, good knowledge of the market and what is offered there as well as knowledge about the application and the technical standards around.” Kalra recommends that the key is to consider the interconnect solution from the very beginning of your design, so that you are not surprised that the connectors you need are not going to fit the box you designed, be conveniently located and easy to use, or be aesthetically pleasing. “Once you have decided to start early, research two things: electrical & signal needs and end user environments. The time you spend on designing your cable solution pays off in reliability, looks, usability and even in the ease of managing your supply chain,” he claims further.

Adding his thoughts on the suppliers’ perspective, Jarrault says that equipment/machine/robot component suppliers need to be able to supply high-quality standard products while also being able to primarily develop individual customised products. “The use of standard ware in complex areas can, in cases of doubt, require unwanted compromises, which in practice can lead to problems with using the robot and production systems. The cable division takes on the often time-consuming development of individual solutions that can involve intensive consultation, and they do this in cooperation with the customer. For this, the technical skills in production as well as the corresponding experience and consulting expertise are critical,” he adds.

Emerging trends

Depending on the environmental conditions of the applications and the type of materials used for cables, major trends have been witnessed in the recent years. “In data network cabling, the use of fibre optic cables is emerging as a popular medium for both new cabling installations and upgrades, over copper cables. Also in cable industry, there is a rapidly growing market for Halogen-Free Flame Retardant (HFFR) and Fire Survival (FS) cables,” says Jarrault. According to Kalra, two of the biggest trends witnessed around cable solutions are that they are becoming more rugged and smarter. “As devices and machines get smaller and more mobile, the need for flexibility, mating and un-mating connectors, and general ability to survive wash downs and moves become critical. We are seeing more coiled cables than ever before, allowing various lengths between connections. In addition, integrating sensors and smart technology into the cable – beyond switches – is happening on a regular basis,” he observes.

On the other hand, Schmidt notices that there is a general trend towards more data, faster transmission/higher data rates and signal integrity in industrial networks. Other aspects to be considered are request for space and weight saving connectors. Another technical feature is remote powering over the cabling system. Speaking further on the objects of Internet of Things (IoT) to collect and exchange data, Kalra adds, “The Internet of Things started with factory automation, but not everything can be wireless because of potential interference, data integrity, and data security.”

Investment in cabling & connectivity

It is necessary to preserve, protect and defend the data network infrastructure by investing in cabling and connectivity. Agreeing on the same, Kalra opines that data needs to be protected, but it also needs to be fast. “Smarter factory automation means more data moves along cables, and it has to move faster. It is the combination of cable and connector that determines data speed. If you have applications that require high data speeds, we highly recommend working with your connector supplier on the best connector/cable combination for speed,” he notes. Adding his comments, Jarrault says, “Structured cabling is the foundation of a successful intelligent building network and the basic investment on which all the other network equipment depends. Investment in a reliable, structured cabling solution is an organisational asset with the benefits of longevity, ROI, and reduced downtime cost.”

According to Schmidt, cabling infrastructure is a minor investment factor if we consider the overall network costs. However, he believes that today, offered cabling systems deliver head room in performance, reliability and cost-efficient operation. On a concluding note, he avers, “It might be clever to look for a long-term operation of the cabling. Megatrends like Big Data, IoT and Industry 4.0 need a strong and powerful cabling infrastructure. To take this into account for the investment decision might be a clever move to take advantage over the competition.”

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