The war in Ukraine is devastating the production and supply chain of wire harnesses used in the automotive industry. It’s not a piece of high-tech, it involves a lot of manual labor, and it probably won’t grab the big headlines like microchips or semiconductors, but no vehicle on the market can be built without this component. Their scarcity could force manufacturers to switch to the new generation of lightweight, modular, mass-produced harnesses, but it would not make sense to invest the work involved in its design for combustion cars, which would accelerate the electrification of its offer. In this matter, once again, Tesla is the smartest in the class.
In cars, the wire harness is the wiring configuration designed specifically for each of the models. Bundled together, they provide a single connection point for multiple cables, speed up manufacturing and assembly of vehicles and also helps diagnose faults and facilitates repairs. It is a very low-tech part, using plastic, wire and rubber as raw materials, which involves a lot of manual work and therefore leaves little profit margin.
Ukraine is home to a significant number of the world’s production centers for wire harnesses that are installed on hundreds of thousands of new vehicles every year. The supply disruptions caused by the war were a heavy blow to the auto industry. Automakers and suppliers say that early in the war, plants stayed open thanks to the determination of workers to keep a reduced flow of moving parts in the face of power outages, air-raid warnings and blasts. remains.
Supply shortages could hasten plans by some traditional automakers to upgrade to a new generation of lighter harnessesmanufactured with machines and designed specifically for electric vehicles, according to autonews who claims to have interviewed more than a dozen industry experts. “This is just one more reason to push the industry to transition to electricity faster,” said Sam Fiorani, head of AutoForecast Solutions.
Gasoline cars still account for the largest share of new car sales globally. Although electric vehicles doubled their registrations to four million last year, they still represent only 6% of the totalaccording to data from JATO Dynamics.
In an interview with ReutersNissan Chief Executive Makoto Uchida said both supply chain disruptions and the Ukraine crisis had prompted his company to talk to suppliers to “move away from the model of wire harnesses made from cheap labor”.
In the short term, automakers and suppliers have moved the production of harnesses to other countries with lower costs. Mercedes-Benz used Mexico to fill a brief supply gap, and some Japanese suppliers are increasing production capacity in Morocco. Meanwhile, others have looked for new production lines in countries like Tunisia, Poland, Serbia or Romania.
Once again, Tesla top of the class
The harnesses used in combustion cars group cables that can have a length of up to five kilometers in an average vehicle. They are responsible for wiring everything from the seat heaters to the windows. Its manufacture is labor-intensive, and its design is practically unique for each modelso changing production and even changing suppliers quickly is a real challenge.
Adrian Hallmark, CEO of Bentley, belonging to the Volkswagen Group, initially expected to lose between 30 and 40 percent of its production by 2022 due to a shortage of harnesses: “The Ukraine crisis threatened to close our factory completely for several months, much longer than The Covid-19 pandemic forced us. According to Hallmark, shifting production to alternate locations “was complicated by the fact that conventional harnesses are made up of 10 different parts that are made by 10 different suppliers in Ukraine.”
For Bentley, which is set to become an all-electric brand by 2030, these supply issues have prompted new approaches and investments in developing a simple harness for electric vehicles that is machine-made thanks to full centralized management.
Once again, Volkswagen looks to Tesla for this task. The Tesla model is a completely different wiring conceptwe couldn’t change ours overnight,” explains Hallmark. “It’s a fundamental change in the way we design cars.”
The new generation of wire harnesses used by Tesla is modularwhich allows them to be manufactured divided into sections in automated production lines. They are lighter, a key factor because reducing the weight of an electric vehicle is crucial to extending its range.
Many of the executives and experts interviewed say combustion cars, which face imminent bans in Europe and China, won’t be around long enough to justify redesigns that allow them to use next-generation harnesses. “I wouldn’t spend a penny on internal combustion engines right now,” warns Sandy Munro, one of the most reputable automotive technology consultants. Munro estimates that electric vehicles will account for half of global new car sales by 2028. ” The future is approaching terrifyingly fast.”
The paradigm shift of electric cars, also for cable harnesses
Walter Glück, head of the harness business at Leoni, claims to be working with manufacturers on new and automated solutions for electric vehicles. The idea is to develop modular harnesses, to be divided into six or eight parts, short enough to automate assembly and reduce production complexity. “It’s a paradigm shift,” says Glück. “In a car factory, a modular wiring harness helps shorten production times.”
BMW is also considering the use of modular wiring harnesses, as they also require fewer semiconductors and fewer wires. This would save space and make the vehicles lighter. They would also make it easier to update vehicles wirelessly. Cel Link, a California-based startup, raised $250 million earlier this year from the likes of BMW and suppliers Lear and Robert Bosch after announcing the development of a fully automated, flat, easy-to-install flexible harness. His director, without identifying the models, assures that his harnesses had been installed in nearly a million electric vehicles.
The new CelLink factory in Texas, in which it has invested 125 million dollars, will have 25 automated production lines. There, harnesses are produced from digital files, allowing you to switch between different designs in around 10 minutes. The company, which is working with several automakers, is considering building another plant in Europe.