How automation will shape the future of the wire harness industry

The wiring harness industry is experiencing rapid increase in demand due to factors such as electrification, the Internet of Things (IoT), and Industry 4.0. All these drive a need for increased functionality, which 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. Productivity of wiring harness manufacture is a critical issue.

The challenge caused by electrification

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 has 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. However, demand is stretching the ability to supply and the pressure to improve productivity means that wire harness automation is becoming vital in overcoming the challenges facing OEMs and suppliers in the automotive, aerospace, and other industries, including:

  • Availability and productivity of 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; and
  • The challenges of inflation.

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.

How automation solves supply chain challenges

The COVID-19 pandemic has 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. Q5D 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 automation supports 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 more 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.

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. Q5D technology uses digital twins to design a wire harness on parts, allowing for changes in design to be rapidly implemented.

How automation delivers mass customisation

Q5D’s approach to wiring and electrical function integration means that our products are designed to add components to complex shapes. The combination of wiring placement and 3D additive polymer deposition provides a way to customise each and every part if desired.  This gives manufacturers the opportunity to allow more customisation without massive tooling costs, and to customise closer to or even contingent on customer order.

 

The Q5D approach

Q5D has developed an entirely new approach to wire harness automation which lays down conductive tracks on parts of appliances and vehicles, thus integrating the wire harness with the product. Both harness manufacture and final assembly can be automated as a result. This revolutionary approach has the potential to deliver significant benefits to OEMs.

Q5D has adapted CAD/CAM principles from subtractive manufacturing and applied them to adding materials. This approach means that designs can be translated into products with specific tool paths specified.

Each robotic manufacturing cell can use a variety of end effectors.  These interchangeable tools deliver different processes; adding polymers; placing pre-made components; laying down insulated wires; embedding bare wires into polymer substrates; creating laser sintered conductive tracks (coming soon).

Designers are given the ability to precisely specify where components and conductors should be.  Production is automated straight from the design created.

Conclusion

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. Q5D technology offers a new approach to wire harness automation that overcomes the challenges of the industry and meets the growing needs of electrification and the IoT.

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