Automating connector manufacturing

PEI-Genesis’ European operations manager, Mark Bailie, walks readers through the process of automated connector assembly at its Southampton facility

A typical cylindrical connector assembly comprises four components: shell, insert, contacts and accessories. The shell forms the strong outer cover and houses the other components. Inside sits the insert, an inner core made from neoprene rubber that holds the contacts.

The insert protects the contacts and provides insulation so electricity can flow from the wire through the contacts without shorting. Contacts are either a pin or socket.

Accessories are application specific and include a backshell to relieve strain, prevent snagging or provide electromagnetic shielding. Other options include clamps and protective caps. Cables sometimes include a coupling nut to hold the mating pair together, plus grommets that bookend the insert and add moisture sealing.

This demonstrates how automatically assembling a connector is not easy. Before automation, operators would have hand glued the insert, pressed it inside the shell, visually checked its orientation and rotated it by hand. Operators would have manually glued, loaded the contacts and applied identification markings to the shell, before using an oven to cure the connector while manually monitoring temperature and duration. Final assembly and packaging were also manual.

Today, PEI’s automated system runs on Kanban principles. The process starts with the manufacturing resource planning (MRP) system. Components are stored in zones, with the most frequently ordered components situated closest to the assembly line. The picking team places the latest orders at the start of the assembly process.

The product travels through assembly stages comprising pneumatic machines that bring the shell and insert together, automatically checking alignment and rotating the inserts.

Thousands of contacts are placed in a bowl-fed racking and gluing machine. As they exit onto a rail, the machine picks/glues the contacts and places them into holes in the reel. The next stage sees the contact loader machine install the glued contacts into the insert with the correct height and orientation. Some inserts can take up to 80 contacts. The machine can place different sized contacts into the same insert for connectors with varying contact sizes and arrangements.

Components are marked using inkjet or laser marking dependent on requirements. The curing process happens in a tunnel oven where speed and duration are automatically adjusted as required.

Beyond this, the connector undergoes quality checking, accessories and protective fittings are added and the product is bagged and packaged for dispatch.