As competition accelerates, manufacturing requirements increase and production operations continuously change, the traditional design-through-delivery approach – where manufacturers make heavy investments in human resources and materials in order to boost capacity and meet customers' orders – is quickly becoming inadequate, especially considering rising labor costs.
Inevitable trend towards fast, lean production
Enterprises now seek faster, more precise production methods while increasing product quality. Such are the demands that lead competitive organizations to advance their system-based management, lean production and time-to-market initiatives.
The electronic connector industry is no exception to this trend. Even while new fiber optics, universal serial bus (USB) 2.0 high-speed, wire broadband and even higher-speed USB 3.0 connectors come online, the connectors market continues to evolve along with information technology (IT). The update cycle of commercial connector-based products, such as mobile phones, computers, cameras and home appliances, is getting increasingly shorter (now about three years), whereas the update cycle for automotive connectors, while essentially stable, faces other challenges due to rapid market growth and fleet technology upgrades. Ultimately, this rapidly changing environment places connector providers under ever-increasing pressure.
With innovation and quality going hand-in-hand in advanced manufacturing, more precise and complex products mean higher requirements for mold development in the connector industry. This requires a higher level of mold design. As terminals of different shapes lead to connectors of different structures, feasible designs are crucial. Highly precise equipment is also required for high-level machining and manufacturing. Finally, a sound approach is critical as a good connector mold is based on a solid combination of product and process best practices.
As a leading supplier, Molex Interconnect Chengdu Co., Ltd. (Molex Chengdu) is focused on the production and manufacture of electronic connector molds at the company's 59 product manufacturing plants strategically located across Asia, Europe and North America. Molex Chengdu has more than 6,000 employees, including more than 100 electromechanical and process engineers. Molex Chengdu is equipped with the latest information systems and product lifecycle management (PLM) technology, including computer-aided design (CAD), computer-aided engineering (CAE), computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) and research and development (R&D) software for other engineering-based applications, enabling the plant to rapidly produce advanced products and readily respond to the latest design trends.
"Molex Chengdu has been a leader in product design innovation for more than a decade," says Vincent Yap, director of Molex Global Tooling Center. "As products get smaller and smaller, the structure becomes more and more complicated. Future development promises increasingly higher requirements for molding to meet the trend towards diversified connectors and higher data transfer rates."
NX CAD chosen as the foundation platform for product development
"In facing increasingly difficult technical development and consumer demand, we needed to improve productivity, reduce costs and innovate continuously," says Yap. "We had to speed up our technical R&D and equipment upgrades to meet higher requirements of mold design and machining." In August 2005, after extensive evaluation and comparison of similar systems and software, Molex Group chose the CAD application of Siemens PLM Software's NXTM software to be the uniform system platform used to advance new product design and development. NX CAD was selected to address such concrete working procedures as product design, punching and electrode design, and machining, to realize a seamless data connection.
Molex Chengdu had relied on workers to control all aspects of production. While the work of designers from various areas was intertwined, there was no integrated, digitally driven system in place to facilitate effective cooperation. Therefore, there was significant data redundancy and inefficient workflow. Everyone created their own data separately. To improve product and mold development efficiency, the company needed to build a concentrated information and process management system. With NX CAD, Molex Chengdu has formed a single platform for all designers, manufacturing personnel, quality control personnel and management, so that everyone can access data from one knowledge source.
"After just several weeks of training and approximately a half-year constructing a complete information system, Molex Chengdu was able to complete all design, verification and manufacturing work using NX CAD," says Yap. "All design and manufacturing personnel, including suppliers and partners, have access to a single data source, enabling them to readily access and share product and process data, reducing errors at the design and manufacturing stages."
Analysis without data conversion
Molex Chengdu has moved to 3D part-based mold design, which not only improves mold design quality, but also enables the large-scale production of molds. Using NX CAD, engineers are able to automatically generate surfaces for spring-back compensation according to specified rules. Using formability analysis or interfaces to professional analysis software, Molex Chengdu can – without data conversion – analyze and calculate the mold spring-back compensation. This includes the application of validation tools at different design stages, such as draft analysis, section formability analysis, the DFM expert wizard, one-step forming analysis and mold validation. During the mold forming process, defect prediction helps optimize designs and improve reliability. This process also enables manufacturing-driven and assembly-driven designs.
The time-consuming process of converting fracture surfaces using different software had long puzzled the company's designers, but using NX CAD, the issue was easily solved via model inputs. NX CAM is now used for numerical control (NC) programming of the mold, with CAM and mold design data now fully associative.
Employing state-of-the-art plastic injection molding machines and metal stamping and forming presses, Molex Chengdu has standardized its NC machining operations. This network-based, expert machining approach enables the company to collectively and consistently distribute machining control procedures, machining processes and technical equipment, thus realizing uniform control, electronic data management (EDM) and NC machining. Ultimately, the company has achieved its goal of concurrent engineering and a fully collaborative working environment.
Molex Chengdu is continuously seeking ways to meet the ongoing challenge of manufacturing ever-smaller connectors and is now developing molds for advanced, complex connectors. In 2012, Molex launched 160 cutting-edge, core micro products, producing smaller electronic connectors with a variety of functionality. NX CAD was indispensable in attaining this achievement. Yap explains, "Utilizing NX CAD and comprehensive information technology, we have improved the first-time success rate of product development by more than 95 percent and mold production budget accuracy to more than 90 percent, while reducing the mold manufacturing cycle by 30 percent. With NX CAD, we have substantially increased product competitiveness." He notes, "With all these micro-connectors, smart phones are becoming smaller and thinner, and 3D portable game systems are getting more interesting."
Yap notes that a sustained pipeline of innovative new products and the ability to respond quickly are essential for maintaining strong customer relationships, and the company is committed to retaining its long tradition of engineering leadership in world-class technology.
Three pillars of leadership
One of the leaders in its industry, Molex management attributes its position, first and foremost, to its focus on R&D. The company invests approximately five percent of net revenues to product R&D annually, among the highest levels in this domain. Molex Chengdu is a very important part of the company’s global investment portfolio. Not long ago, Molex invested another US$30 million to build the global mold center and warehouse, as well as to add relevant machines and equipment. This is the third capital investment made into Molex Chengdu since its establishment in 2005, with a view to make it Molex’s largest commercial products manufacturing plant.
The second pillar is training. Each year, Molex Chengdu provides training tailored to the professional responsibilities of its employees. It also gives personnel the opportunity to participate in technical exchanges and training throughout the world, including the United States, Japan, Ireland and Singapore. The training helps strengthen the company's abilities across key processes, including injection molding, stamping, plating and assembly operations.
The third pillar in Molex Chengdu's strategy of staying at the forefront in its field is using NX CAD to optimize the manufacturing process, with a special emphasis on shortening the mold manufacturing cycle and eliminating hidden choke points in various links. According to Yap, with NX CAD, the company has substantially improved its ability to quickly develop, manufacture, and bring high-quality interconnect systems to market. He points out that the company has plans to further exploit the advanced capabilities of NX for business advantage.