Harness: This is not a garage shop…

If you have any experience with sourcing electrical interconnects, specifically wire harnesses, you are well aware there is a harness supplier on every corner. In my experience, there have been many enterprising individuals who have realized that their current employer could really use a good harness supplier, quit their jobs, and opened a shop up just down the road. What a great strategy! Due to the manual assembly of harnesses, the start-up capital is low an there is an instant customer base. Unfortunately, many of these suppliers keep their cost low by keeping overhead down and essentially running a garage shop (right beside the drum kit). This is not how PC Systems got into the Harness business and we are definitely not a garage shop. Consequently, none of us have ever had a garage band either.

PC Systems is an ISO 9001:2008 registered supplier. We have a quality system that goes above and beyond the requirements of ISO, particularly because we use the same quality processes in our Harness department as we do for our Automotive Flex Term departments. Our system is much closer to the requirements for TS 16949 and currently we are looking into becoming registered for ISO 13485. All harnesses are built on harness layout boards and tested 100% (typically 2 or 3 times) before they land in a box.

Is that what differentiates us in the eyes of our customers? Probably not, unless you are the SQE or Quality Manager. So then, why should a customer select PC Systems for harness work? There are many reasons, but I want to focus on one, over-braid capability.

A braided harness provides many benefits when compared to taping and/or split loom. It is more aesthetically pleasing because it is a custom finish and can be colored multiple ways per customer specification. It provides superior abrasion resistance because it will not unravel or move. Finally, one cannot tamper with the harness without there being evidence showing on the braid. This is particularly important in Military applications.

I don’t want to assume that everyone knows what I am referring to when I say “braid”. Here is a harness that we produce that is over-braided:

You may say, that doesn’t look that special, how does PC Systems differentiate themselves with braiding? The interesting thing about harness braiding is that it is done with machines that are only produced by a small number of manufacturers, specifically the NE Butt Co./Wardwell lineage. Ultimately, there are a limited amount of these machines available for purchase, so the machines that we have here at PC Systems are very valuable to us and our customers. We have found in the past that even some Harness suppliers look to outsource their over-braiding due to the inability to do it themselves.

I could go on and on about why I think that our harnesses are a superior product when compared to some of the others in the field, but in the spirit of concise communication, I will cut myself off here. If you think that we may be able to help you out with a harness or outsourced over-braiding, I invite you to contact us so we can talk further!

What is the core competency of PC Systems?

Customer: “Do you sell hard drives?”
Us: “Unfortunately we do not, we are a electrical interconnect supplier.”
Customer: “…(silence)…I am not real sure what that means, but it sounds like you can’t help me. Thanks.”

This phone call occurs at least weekly. First, PC Systems does not stand for Personal Computer Systems, rather Paesano Connecting Systems, which alludes to how our company was originally started. The next question is “what is an electrical interconnect?”, which I often describe as: “If power/voltage/current needs to be transferred between two points we can provide the product to do that, regardless of complexity.”

What is the core competency of PC Systems? This is an interesting question, because as a team, we do everything we can to not pigeon-hole ourselves. We are constantly looking for alternative markets and adjacent technologies to broaden our footprint. This is where a significant portion of our harness and overmolded connector business has come from, but at the heart of our operations is our Flex Term department, particularly the window glass connector product line.

PC Systems develops products that electrically connect the vehicle wiring harness to the frit that is applied to automotive (and heavy equipment) window glass. This allows for a relatively high current, in automotive terms, to heat up the frit via resistance and consequently warm the glass providing a defrost function. There are multiple ways to connect the harness to this frit. Most of these include flowing solder from our connector onto the frit via a preform, clad clip of some kind, or reflow tab of solder. There are other methods as well, for example a mechanical/electrical connection via a snap, but that is another discussion. If you have ever had the inconvenience of needing to pull the window trim off your back window to fix a defroster, you likely have seen at least one of the methods for attaching a connector to glass. PC Systems has the capability to produce product that uses all of these methods mentioned above, but what we call the “preform and braid” product is our true core competency.

The reason we prefer preform and braid and continue to encourage our customers to use it is that it is functionally superior to other methods while at the same time providing a significant cost advantage. How is this possible? Quite frankly, it is a very simple product that can easily be automated. It is boring for Engineers, but music to the ears of Buyers. The reason it is functionally superior although simple is because the frit essentially uses the same design as it did when it was initially introduced. Solder sticks to the frit and not to the glass, therefore it is best that the solder “pad” is not defined by a fixed tin plated copper foot, rather it is allowed to move freely to be defined by the shape of the frit. This allows for flexible geometries and reduced frit widths which is preferred by the end user.

Also, the alternative to a “preform and braid” attachment is often to put a clad clip onto the braid, mechanically crimp the clip to the braid, and metallurgically bond the clip to the frit. This means there is no metallurgical bond from the frit to the braid, because the solder cladding is only on the bottom of the clip. This differs from the “preform and braid” in the fact that when the heat is applied to the preform, the braid will flood with solder in the immediate area of the heat and also flow down to the frit. This allows for a metallurgical bond between the braid and the frit.

Why is this a benefit?

One would imagine that inside the cabin of an automobile, hidden under a piece of trim, would be one of the least demanding environments for a product to reside. Anyone with automotive experience knows this isn’t true, although it is probably the least demanding location on the automobile itself. Ultimately, contaminants will work their way between the clip and the braid if only mechanically fastened. This is exacerbated by the temperature cycling that the part will see in application. As the temperature changes, the clip and braid will expand and contract at different rates, creating larger or tighter gaps between the material (due to CTE mismatch), and eventually work hardening and reducing the ductility of the clip. None of this is good, because we have to remember that we are sending around 20 amps through this braid. A high resistance at the point where the braid is attached to the frit could result in a hot spot which could reflow the solder or even worse result in fire. Who would have thought that your rear defrost unit could pose a safety risk?

I should preface this by saying that the layers of quality and safety paperwork that the automotive supply chain must complete should reduce the chance of spontaneous combustion of your rear windshield, but I think we are all aware of tires blowing off of Ford Explorers and the Toyotas that drive themselves.

Are there benefits to using methods other than “preform and braid”? Absolutely, which is why we offer all attachment methods to our customer. We just feel that “preform and braid” provides the best value for our customer and ultimately the end user.

Ironically, the method of using “preform and braid” is technically simple, but the frit and window design never are. Although it probably isn’t a surprise to you, customers are using the frit as antennas, reducing the frit width, trying to reduce the overall package of connectors and trim pieces, and reducing the size of the defroster grid to the point of not being able to see it in the window. In the end, the method of attachment of the connector is usually the last thing on the designer’s mind, which makes us happy to provide a product that is flexible enough to be designed around constraints and simple enough to be designed, built and shipped in less than a week, just in time for the IVER builds.

LEAN for the Job Shop (or Harness Department)

Have you ever heard this from a salesman? “We excel at providing low cost, high quality, and quick turnarounds. We can do anything from high volume to low volume and our customer service is the best in the business.” If I could paraphrase, “We are the world’s best supplier!”

We are not any different and I am sure our sales team pitches a very similar story. If we are going to claim to be a company with a continuous improvement culture, we have to show progress to meeting some of the above mentioned capabilities.

I would like to share an example of how we are doing this in our Harness Department. In the past, we typically would build custom harnesses in batches between 5 and 25, with some exceptions between 50 and 75. It is a very high mix, low volume manufacturing environment. One operator per shift would work on the parts, finishing an entire operation before moving on to the next. For example, operator A would terminate the entire 25 piece order, before moving onto splicing, then to layout, etc.

Lately, we have seen our order sizes jump to 100 and 150 pieces. What used to take a week to get an order through the system with one operator, now was taking 3-4 weeks. The throughput did not decrease, but it tied up cash and resources, and decreased our flexibility. All of which decreases our value to our customer. We needed to make a change.

We held a couple informal Kaizen events, started a 5S implementation, and manipulated the layout of our manufacturing space to facilitate better flow through the system. These all helped, but most importantly, we decreased our batch size to 5-10 pieces maximum ala Alex Rogo in The Goal. Using many of the same concepts used in this simple novel, we have increased capacity, reduced WIP, and increased our flexibility for the customer. Most importantly, our operators are happier. They now have much more ownership on the floor, they have the freedom to move around much more (opposed to sitting at a termination bench all day), and Quality is improving.

Interestingly enough, our throughput has increased slightly. Per all of our calculations we expected throughput to decrease due to increased setups, more walking waste, and a new system. You could point to the 5S organization contributing to our improved throughput, but I truly believe it is due to the general morale improving due to the new system. If you are cynical, which many engineers tend to be, you could also attribute the success to white coat syndrome. As expected with any change in manufacturing, our management team is keeping a close eye on the department looking for any potential faults. We aren’t hanging our hats up yet on the increased throughput, but it has been an welcomed surprise for our team.

We are closing in on a full month after making the initial changes. We realize the change is relatively new, but it is our hope that rather than regress we continue to progress with the improvement. All metrics point to an improvement, which we all know is reflected in value to our customer.

Does anyone else have a success story they would like to share, particularly related to using concepts from Theory of Constraints or The Goal?

Sound the Trumpets

I am not a strong proponent of bragging about accomplishments, but we recently had a success here at PC Systems that I would really like to share with you.

Not long ago, we received a call from a customer who knew what they needed an interconnect to do, but had no real idea on how to do it. They were pointed to our website via a colleague, saw a picture of a part they thought would work (it was a past prototype), and they gave us a call.

After a 10 minute conversation on the phone they asked if they could come to our facility. Our response was of course as we started to talk about our schedule for the next few weeks, but they promptly told us they would be there first thing in the morning. We immediately scrambled, creating prototypes and discussing design options.

The customer arrived around 10AM the next morning and we immediately went to the conference room. Within an hour we had a whiteboard drawing of an assembly. It would consist of 2 simple harnesses to be run on our automated leadmakerand one custom overmolded assembly. I won’t get into detail other than to say it was an injection overmold, with two custom components. We discussed project timing and quickly realized we were behind schedule. The customer needed final parts in 8 weeks. This would include designing the custom components, bringing a new supplier on board for one of the custom components (in Europe) and design and manufacture of a injection mold tool. We committed and the customer left for home. I am sure they had an uneasy feeling regarding how we would meet their timing.

By the end of the day we had formal drawings and within 3 days we had signoff from the customer’s customer (OEM). We did this by interacting directly with the customer’s customer for signoff, copying our customer, in an effort to eliminate delay from a middle man.

Now it was time for our supply chain to show us what they could do. Please keep in mind this was a very small order in the context of what our suppliers normally produce. We pride ourselves in developing partnerships with our suppliers where size of the order doesn’t dictate priority. They delivered.

I also want to say that our tool shop is a class act. Capitalizing on the decrease in powdered metal industry in our area, we have found a very competent shop with top of the line equipment who can produce tooling at a reasonable cost and provide true value for our customers. They helped alleviate some of our time constraint by providing design insight as our Engineering staff developed drawings for the part and tooling.

We were able to get our custom component manufacturers online very quickly and to make a long story short, we made our deadline. We ship the parts today.

We shipped custom overmolded parts in 8 weeks at no other customer’s expense. We did it without charging a single expedite fee and without cutting a single corner. All the credit in the world goes to our supply chain and the staff at PC Systems that supports them. Also, to the customer, who was responsive when they needed to be, and also hands off when they needed to be.

Are we proud? Absolutely. Are we surprised? Absolutely not. Here at PC Systems, every customer is truly important to us. We cannot afford to put anyone on the back burner because they are a small account or do not represent high growth potential.

If you are a consumer of electrical interconnects, I challenge you to let us solve your next design problem. If you want to know more about PC Systems and what we do, please take a look at our website here: http://pcsridgway.com/