The wiring harness industry is experiencing rapid change due to the technological advances of electrification, the Internet of Things (IoT), and Industry 4.0. Increased functionality means a higher demand for power and data connections in modern appliances, products, and vehicles. As a result, the wire harness market is growing rapidly. Transparency Market Research forecasts a wire harness market of $200 billion by 2031. The productivity of wiring harness manufacturing is a critical issue.
The challenge caused by electrification
Historical wire harness manufacturing methods use manual processes both in making the harnesses and installing them in the final product. The complexity and flexibility of harnesses have so far made automation of the whole process impossible. For this reason, original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) often source their wire harnesses from areas with skilled workforces and lower labour rates – like Eastern Europe and Central America.
Figure 1 – Nearly all wire harnesses are made and installed manually, and they’re becoming more complex.
However, wire harness automation is vital in overcoming the challenges and meeting the needs of OEMs in the automotive, aerospace, and other industries, including:
- Availability and productivity of the workforce
- The increased number and variety of electrical functions, from sensors to motors
- The demand for mass customisation
- The uncertainty and risk in lengthy supply chains
- The challenges of inflation.
Demand is stretching the ability to supply. These challenges demand a new approach. Methods like laser direct structuring (LDS), printed circuit boards, and large-area flexible conductors have already offered hope for more efficient wire harness production. However, these methods have limited applications and don’t automate the entire production process.
Can automation solve the productivity challenge?
A new approach to wire harness automation called electrical function integration employs a 5-axis robotic CNC manufacturing cell that lays down conductive tracks on parts of appliances and vehicles to integrate the wire harness within the products. Both harness manufacture and final assembly are automated. This approach has the potential to deliver significant benefits to OEMs.
Figure 2 – This 5-axis additive manufacturing robot lays down conductors to integrate wiring harnesses within products.
The COVID-19 pandemic exposed some weaknesses in the wire harness supply chain, demonstrating how the long distances between wire harness manufacturing centres and OEM production sites can severely hamper the time to market. The war in Ukraine has exacerbated the problem, constraining the ability of European car makers to meet their market demands. Automating wire harness production allows OEMs to “reshore” this activity and significantly reduce the risk of supply chain disruption. The new technology enables OEMs to vertically integrate wire harness production with the product assembly, effectively removing their reliance on a supply chain for this component.
How wiring automation contributes to sustainability
There is a global trend towards sustainability as many countries and organisations seek to meet the environmental goals set at the last UN Climate Change Conference. This focus has led to a move away from internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles, with many countries committing to phase out ICE technology by 2040.
However, electric vehicles have limited battery capacity meaning weight must be minimised to reduce the power demand. Engineers often over-specify wiring due to the mechanical stresses wire harnesses endure during manual installation. As a result, these harnesses take up more space and weigh more than necessary. Automated processes put less stress on wire harnesses during installation making it possible to use optimum design specifications.
Reducing the supply chain distances also contributes to sustainability, as transporting components uses fuel that translates into a larger carbon footprint.
How automation improves product safety and durability
Traditional wire harnesses are not anchored along their full length, which can lead to wires chafing against each other and the wearing down of insulation. This scenario could result in short circuits and quality issues. The U.S. Department of Transportation lists electrical systems as one of the leading causes of vehicle recalls in 2022.
Automated processes can print conductive paths onto parts of a product, eliminating the need for manual handling of wire harnesses. This technique ensures adequate separation between conductive paths, reducing the potential for short circuits and ensuring better quality performance.
Figure 3 – Automating the addition of bare or insulated wires into products eliminates the reliability issues associated with wire harnesses and the challenges of long supply chains with traditional harnesses.
How automation meets the needs of electrification and the IoT
Electric vehicles have a high demand for power and connectivity as carmakers seek to add features that differentiate their products from the competition. The same goes for appliances and other products using “smart” components that involve compressing more wires into the overcrowded internal product space, which is problematic using manual production methods.
The only way to insert more complex wire harnesses into modern products and vehicles is to use automated methods of printing circuits onto parts. This way, OEMs can expand their products’ functionality without changing the design to accommodate more wires. Electrical function integration employs digital twins – virtual models that represent physical objects and processes – to design wire harnesses on parts, allowing for changes in design to be rapidly implemented.
How automation delivers mass customisation
The latest developments in wiring and electrical function integration includes machines designed to add components to complex shapes. The combination of wiring placement and 3D additive polymer deposition provides a way to customise every part if desired. This gives manufacturers the opportunity to allow more customisation without high tooling costs, and to customise closer to or even contingent on their customers’ orders.
The wire harness industry has traditionally relied on manual production processes leading to remote manufacturing sites and long supply chains. These processes are unable to keep up with the demand for more complex wire harness designs and greater connectivity in modern products and vehicles. Electrical function integration offers a new approach to wire harness automation that overcomes many of the challenges in automotive and other industries.