As one of the leading manufacturers of custom cable assemblies, and wire harnesses, our team knows a thing or two about cable structures and the importance of the little details. Over our years in the industry, we’ve learned the key to reliable and high-performance cables rests in their design. While every cable can be customized to suit your needs, three critical components are the backbone of nearly every product we construct. We’re speaking, of course, of the conductors, insulation, and shielding.
In this post, we’ll descend into the importance of each of these components and how they cooperate to transmit signals, electricity, and data.
Conductors: Getting to the Heart of the Issue
At the center of every cable lies the conductor. This critical element is responsible for transmitting power, signal, and electromagnetic pulses between terminals. The conductor provides a pathway for electric current to flow freely from one point to another. This flow allows the cable to perform efficiently and consistently.
The connector of a cable can be customized in several different ways. Depending on your equipment, capacity requirements, and purpose of your cable, a cable conductor will need unique features and structure. The structure can be the metal, the size, or the physical form of the wire itself. These unique properties will function cohesively to enable a steady signal and voltage flow.
The Matter of Materials
The base metal for the center of any cable must be highly conductive to ensure a consistent and stable connection. While the majority of conductors are made from copper, several other metals can be added to optimize performance and maximize capacity. Here are some of the most common materials used to create conductive lines in cables:
- Copper: Copper is one of the most widely used conductor materials thanks to its high electrical conductivity. As a relatively inexpensive material, copper is commonly used in power transmission and distribution.
- Aluminum: Aluminum is a light and relatively inexpensive material with many practical qualities. While it is slightly less conductive than copper, aluminum is extremely useful in transmitting power and signals over long distances.
- Silver: As the most conductive metal, silver offers a high-capacity transmission. However, due to its high cost and relative rarity, it is often used as an alloy with other conductive metals rather than as the soul conductor.
- Gold: Gold is a highly conductive metal that is both malleable and corrosion-resistant. However, like silver, gold comes at a high price, making it less popular as a conductor. Gold is often used in conjunction with other materials like copper to save on cost.
- Tungsten: Tungsten has an extremely high melting point, making it a valuable conductor material for environments exposed to high temperatures. Although it is less common to find a Tungsten conductor, it is typically found in areas like aerospace engineering and military applications.
- Nickel: Nickel is often used as an alloy due to its corrosion resistance and durability. These qualities make it an ideal metal for environments where moisture or chemical factors may be present.
- Other Alloys: Countless other alloys can be used as conductors to increase capacity, regulate electrical flow, or maximize a capable voltage. Some of these alloys may include brass, bronze, or others for specialized applications.
Naturally, choosing the right material for your conductor will be determined by your equipment, environment, capacity requirements, and other factors. While there are several options for conductors, those listed above are among the most common materials used in electrical equipment. Each material has unique qualities that provide advantages and detriments. It is essential for optimizing performance and efficiency within your electrical system.
Just the Right Fit
When it comes to conductor size, the appropriate circumference can make all the difference. The cross-sectional area, also known as the gauge, plays a critical role in determining conductivity, heat dispersion, and capacity. When a wire is extruded (pulled to the right size), it can be adjusted to the proper gauge for your equipment, environment, and intended purposes of the cable.
A conductor’s gauge determines several performance and mechanical factors, including:
- The current carrying capacity
- Mechanical strength
- Conductivity and corrosion resistance
- Heat dispersion
- Frequency transmission capabilities
In short, the right size conductor is a critical aspect of a cable’s design. A conductor’s gauge determines the functionality and efficiency of any cable.
Solid Vs. Stranded Conductors
A conductor can be composed of two primary structures: solid and stranded. While each of these has its benefits and trade-offs, each serves to optimize signal flow for its intended purpose. Solid conductors consist of a single, unbroken line of metal, providing stable and excellent signal integrity. Solid conductors offer a high-integrity signal over long distances with little to no signal loss. This design is optimal for situations that involve little to no interference with the cable, like flexing or bending.
Stranded cables, on the other hand, are comprised of a series of conductors woven together to form a spiral braid. This construction provides superior flexibility, making stranded conductors more suitable for portable equipment, tight spaces, or environments where they will need to bend regularly.
Whether a cable contains a solid conductor or a stranded conductor will determine its capacity, performance, and application. The structure of a conductor plays a pivotal part in ensuring it meets conduction requirements with precision and reliability.
Insulation: Keeping Everything in Place
As you can see, there’s a lot of ground to cover (pun intended) with conductors. Now that we have a thorough grasp on their structure and makeup, let’s talk about what goes around them: insulation. Insulation service has an invaluable purpose within a cable to protect the conductor from losing electrical signal and being bombarded by external forces. The insulation performs several functions within a cable and defends the conductor on multiple fronts.
Insulation’s Multi-Faceted Protection
As the protective layer around the conductor, the insulation helps ward off pesky interference and prevents signal loss. Here are some of the most critical ways installation performs its duties:
- Electrical containment: The insulation ensures the electrical pulses are isolated and contained within the cable. This prevents stray waves from escaping or making unintended contact with other surfaces.
- Elemental Protection: Besides containing electrical signals, the insulation helps prevent environmental factors, like moisture and dust particles, from interfering with the cable’s conductivity.
- Dielectric strength: High-capacity insulation materials can add dielectric strength, which is its ability to undergo electrical stress without failure.
Insulation materials can vary based on the intended purpose of a cable, material cost, and signal requirements.
Shielding: Defense Activated
Many applications require an additional layer of defense beyond insulation to protect against electromagnetic interference (EMI). Typically, in electronically noisy environments, like server rooms, telecommunications, or aerospace technologies, shielding helps protect the cable from losing signal, corrupting data transfer, or connectivity loss.
The additional layer of protection shielding provides helps ensure consistent signal, protected power flow, and high-quality connections.
Multiple types of shielding can be incorporated into an electrical cable. The first method of protecting a conductor is using the foiling technique. This process involves wrapping the conductor and insulation in thin strips of conductive foil, providing a barrier against EMI. This type of shielding is the most thorough protection and is best suited for tables that will not be bent or heavily manipulated.
Braided shielding consists of a tiny mesh sleeve of conductive foil woven around the conductor and insulation. This method provides flexibility for cables in portable systems or environments where the cable position may change frequently. While it does offer more flexibility, braided shielding can leave some gaps for EMI to interfere with the conductor and signal flow.
Combination Shielding: The Best of Both
In situations where unwavering signal and flexibility are required, combination shielding utilizes both methods to thoroughly cover the conductor and insulation while allowing for movement and flexibility. This enhanced protection helps encompass a broad range of defenses against EMI and radio frequency interference (RFI).
Grounding: The Linchpin of Defense
Of course, the shielding amounts to nothing without proper grounding. For a shield to be effective, it must channel the unwanted electrical interference away from the conductor and safely disperse it. Proper grounding displaces the harmful interference so that it doesn’t corrupt the signal or data within the cable. This crucial action is the foundation of successful shielding, making it invaluable to electronically noisy applications.
Building Custom Cables From Prototype
It’s quite rare for a custom cable assembly or wire harness to go from design to manufacturing without a prototyping phase. During prototyping, we look at multiple iterations of the unit’s design, as well as other elements like materials sourcing and even logistics, to ensure we can deliver the perfect product on time and on budget. Prototyping allows our design team the opportunity to test minute details to ensure the best possible version of a unit moves on to volume manufacturing.
Let’s Get Started!
Our team would love to design a high-quality custom cable just for you. Reach out for a quote on your next custom cable project.