Exploring the “Key” to Enhanced Efficiency in Connector Assembly

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Content Source: https://www.molex.com/en-us/blog/exploring-the-key-to-enhanced-efficiency-in-connector-assembly

The Challenge: Overcoming Manufacturing Delays and Costly Connection Errors

The advanced technology fueling today’s global business arena allows organizations to design products in one location while manufacturing them in another. Unfortunately, these expanded capabilities often create some unique challenges that can hinder efficiency—particularly given the fact that today’s feature-rich electronic innovations frequently depend on a complex array of wire-to-wire and wire-to-board connections. As such, the risk of costly errors and production delays can sharply escalate when assembly teams are asked to accurately match or “mate” a diversely intermingled assortment of cables and connectors. Further, it’s often found that spending excessive amounts of time on this meticulous task may also increase the chances of on-the-job repetitive motion injuries and musculoskeletal issues, resulting in additional costs for manufacturers. 

Matching Matters

Quality of assembly represents one of the most critical aspects of connector performance, yet it is often overlooked. Even the most capable connectors manufactured with state-of-the-art materials can be compromised when they’re incorrectly matched or installed. This is why companies are putting an increasing level of focus on identifying and resolving assembly issues related to connectors. 

The challenge with traditional connectors is that they often incorporate multiple features and circuits with vastly different purposes—yet the connectors themselves are usually small in size and similar in appearance. As a result, even the most skilled assembly teams can make the following critical errors—especially when working quickly: 

  • Cross-mating-when two connector halves from different manufacturers are matched or joined together.
  • Mis-mating-when two connector halves from the same manufacturer are incorrectly matched or joined together. 

Cross-Mating: A Risky Business

While connectors from different manufacturers often closely resemble one another, cross-mating them can cause significant and even dangerous problems with intended functionality, reliability and/or safety. As demand for power continues to increase across industries and applications, it is essential to take these potential issues seriously—particularly when diverse design materials come into play.

Because there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution that delivers superior performance across every application, different connector manufacturers engineer their products using a variety of materials. Each of these options provides certain advantages in specific situations. The connector body, for example, offers both mechanical and environmental protection. Depending on the intended application, this body could be made from a wide range of plastics or metals. Cross-mating connectors therefore risks combining two incompatible materials in ways that can severely impair functionality. 

Mis-mating: A Costly Error

Even when connectors are made by the same manufacturer, mis-mating them can have hugely adverse impacts in terms of performance, production costs and end-user safety. Incorrect mating could potentially result in signal loss, mechanical failure, equipment damage or short circuiting—in addition to requiring time-intensive troubleshooting measures. When connector labels are printed in an unfamiliar language or lost entirely during shipment from one location to another, the risk of assembly errors can escalate even further. 

Keying in on the Answer

Luckily, production teams are no longer limited to conventional connector designs. A growing array of versatile connector solutions are now being specifically engineered to address the significant issues noted above. These offerings come in two main varieties: 

  • Color-keyed connectors– feature brightly hued exteriors or color-coded graphics—making it faster and easier to visually match coordinating colors and identify errors.
  • Mechanically keyed connectors– have a distinctive shape that only fits a corresponding connector and can only be inserted one way. 

Understanding Keying and Polarization

In addition to preventing matching mistakes, mechanically keyed solutions also decrease the chance of problematic polarization errors. Because polarization and keying are very similar connector characteristics, they’re often mistaken for one another. 

Polarization refers to one or more features on a connector pair that only permit mating in the proper orientation. For example, it’s possible during assembly to match the right connector halves, yet erroneously rotate one of them by 180 degrees. Adding mechanical keying features makes it physically impossible for such positional variations to occur. This is especially crucial when an operator is unable to see the connector parts while uniting them, typically referred to as “blind mating.” To summarize:

  • Keying helps assembly operators match/mate connectors quickly and accurately when working with several connectors that are similar in appearance. There’s no need to stop and check for subtle identifying marks—so the chances of cross-mating or mis-mating are greatly reduced. 
  • Polarization helps ensure that properly matched connectors are mated in the correct orientation. The distinctive shape of mechanically keyed connectors often acts like a polarization feature since the connectors can only fit together one way. 

Fostering Design Flexibility

Given the important dynamics noted above, forward-thinking design engineers can introduce substantial efficiency advantages by specifying keyed connectors at the start of a project. In a similar way, engineers who seek out specific features can proactively support ever-evolving product safety and dependability needs. When considering the inclusion of keyed connectors, keep in mind that the following characteristics can often help optimize long-term performance:

  • Compact design conserves valuable printed circuit board (PCB) space as products become more miniaturized
  • Ribs between each mated housing diminish arcing due to contaminants
  • Polarization keys on housing ribs reduce the potential for electrical shorting
  • Retainers facilitate full insertion of crimped terminals to protect against moisture ingress
  • Positive-lock housings provide tactile and audible feedback to facilitate faster assembly
  • Terminal position assurance (TPA) retainers ensure secure connector seating to reduce performance-impeding contact backout issues
  • Anti-snag designs foster more efficient storage
  • Halogen-free materials withstand high-temperature assembly processing
  • Glow wire compatibility ensures consumer safety

Supporting Diverse Industry Needs

As today’s advanced product designs integrate increased functionality into progressively smaller footprints, connector keying is becoming more commonplace across an expanding range of industries. Automotive, home appliance, consumer products, healthcare, industrial, telecommunications and defense—these sectors and more demand highly dependable performance that hinges on accurate interconnects. Factors like rough handling and rigorous operating conditions call for proper and secure connector pairings. Additionally, with a new generation of smart devices and appliances operating in the absence of consistent user oversight, correct and precise connector pairing is imperative for safe, reliable performance. This video provides an up-close look at the various ways keyed connectors can often enhance efficiency across an array of exacting applications. 

Enhancing Efficiency for Safety and Performance

Today’s fast-evolving business climate leaves little room for error—yet safe and dependable product performance continues to be a top priority. Color-keyed and mechanically keyed connectors help prevent costly connector mating mishaps, simplifying assembly in ways that can accelerate production and even support workplace ergonomics. When specifying keyed connectors for a given design, intentionally choosing specific features can often help improve long-term product functionality as well. It’s no stretch to say that in numerous ways, these innovative connectivity options represent the “key” to enhanced efficiency. 

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