Managing Connector Design Changes

Any change to a connector design can cause undesirable and unanticipated results. In order to manage the risks associated with design changes, a well-established and effective process is required.

 

Plan A or Plan BThere are many possible motivations for changing the design of a connector. Typically these would include:

  • Need for enhanced performance by a specific customer or the general marketplace (competitive performance)
  • An unexpected problem with the connector design discovered after release of the connector to the marketplace
  • Reduction of the connector manufacturing cost (price competition)
  • Discontinued materials used to make the connector

The request for a design change may be submitted by sales staff on behalf of the customer(s); by the manufacturing department to improve ease of production; the design engineers; or any other interested party.

Any change to a connector design can cause undesirable and unanticipated results. In order to manage the risks associated with design changes, a well-established and effective process is required.

ISO Requirements

ISO 9001-2008, clause 7.3.7 states the following:

“Design and development changes shall be identified and records maintained. The changes shall be reviewed, verified, and validated as appropriate, and approved before implementation. The review of design and development changes shall include evaluation of the effect of the changes on constituent parts and product already delivered. Records of the results of the review of changes and any necessary actions shall be maintained.”

The foregoing requirements are particularly important for changes made after the connector design has been validated and has been released for sale to customers.

Evaluating the Design Change Request

A team is established to review, evaluate, verify, validate, and implement the change. The company procedure will grant the authority to individuals to approve the change. The following scenario may describe a possible example of a connector design change request:

The connector company has successfully launched a cable connector which mates to a standard header with 20 contacts. The product line was expanded to include headers and cable connectors with up to 50 contacts in increments of 10. As a result, customers of the 40-position and larger connectors have found the connectors difficult to mate and un-mate during assembly. The competitor’s product does not exhibit this problem. The sales and marketing department has submitted a request for a design change to overcome this problem.

A team is assembled to consider the design change. The team first needs to determine if the request for change is a large enough problem to initiate an investigation. Are the connector’s mating and un-mating forces so high that the product specification is not met or that damage or injury might occur during assembly, or is this largely a customer-satisfaction enhancement? From an engineer’s perspective, this is important because in order to reduce the mating and un-mating forces, it may be necessary to change the design of the contacts. This change could result in lower normal forces, which could induce a failure mode with an ultimate effect of higher contact resistance or even intermittent open circuits. Therefore, there is a risk that solving one problem might lead to another problem that could potentially affect performance of the end product.

Developing a Solution

If the team and approval authority decide to implement a design change, the design engineer will apply his/her creativity and skills to the project. This part of the design change process is essentially the same as the development phase of new product development. This may include finite element analysis and tolerance analysis, updating the design failure modes, and effect analysis, as well as evaluation of prototypes.

In this illustrative scenario, the design engineer has determined that a small change to the connector spring dimensions will reduce the mating force and the resulting small reduction of the normal force will not require any changes to the product specification. The change is internal to the connector and will not be visible to the customer.

The team meets to consider the change. Manufacturing will provide costs for tooling changes and the quantity of product in inventory. There is no change required for the mating header design and the changed product will have full compatibility with the existing design. Product already shipped does not need to be replaced. This evaluation and supporting data is recorded as required by ISO 9001.

Testing the Change

Prior to manufacturing product for sale, the production tool will be modified and a preproduction run will be made using production tooling. The design engineer will submit the product for any required design validation testing. The production process will also be validated during this preproduction run. The current product specification does not have to be changed.

At this time, the approval authority will review the design change. This review will verify that there are documented records stating that all activities have been successfully completed and the supporting data is appropriately stored. Prior to approval for implementation, it is necessary to determine which customers have purchased the connector and if any of these customers have a contractual agreement to review and approve changes prior to implementation. After any required customer approvals are obtained, the implementation of the change can begin. Final approval of the design change is recorded and the implementation of the change takes place.

Customer Notification

It has been determined that since the customers will see some change in the mating and un-mating forces with the changed design, customers who have purchased the connector will be notified of the change. This notification will include date of implementation. At this time, a disposition of connectors in inventory will be made and implemented by the production planning and logistics team. Production drawings will be changed and production of the changed design will begin. The implementation phase requires excellent coordination and communication skills as well as the necessary stock management tools of both components and finished product.

A small change to a connector design can require a lot of activity. However, uncontrolled changes to both product designs and manufacturing processes often lead to more and bigger problems for both the customer and the connector supplier. The connector supplier with robust processes to control both product and manufacturing process changes will also provide superior connectors and customer service. When evaluating connector suppliers, be sure to evaluate their design change process against both your needs and ISO 9001-2008 clause 7.37.

Author George Bedorf is principal consultant at APEX Electrical Interconnection Consultants. During more than 30 years in the connector industry, Bedorf established a record of success with strategic planning and tactical implementation using process improvement methodology. He has expertise in the use of planning and improvement tools in both business and manufacturing processes and extensive hands-on experience in the development and implementation of new processes and new products. Bedorf’s management experience includes his time as director of quality assurance at AMP Incorporated.

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