As telecommunications, electronics, computer, automotive, transportation, and other major industries face new challenges, a vast pool of creative opportunity opens for hinges, latches, and captive hardware. New products and applications are being developed from the innovative use of materials and the integration of new technologies, with a sharp eye for continuous improvement of products and processes.
Some of the current needs of Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEM) include latches that aid in the management of electromagnetic shielding, latches that withstand high levels of UV exposure, and some that resist a variety of chemicals or cleaning agents. In addition, everyone today expects shorter development-cycle times and a high value-to-cost ratio.
There are many factors influencing the access-hardware industry today--let's consider some of the key trends.
Design and production trends
- Cycle times. From a product-development standpoint, reduction of development-cycle times continues to be a priority for OEM designers and for our engineers at Southco. Throughout industry, the constant pressure to shorten the cycle time of the development process is driven by the need to respond as quickly as possible to changing demands and expectations from the market. Along with the question, "Can you design a new latching system for our server?" come questions like: "How quickly can we see a prototype?" and "How soon can you deliver full-production quantities?" In response to these ever-increasing demands, Southco employs the latest CAD and rapid prototyping technologies that enable us to take a concept to a physical model in a matter of days.
- Continuous improvement. Good quality is a given throughout industry. Everyone expects to have 100% on-time delivery of high-quality parts, all the time. The big news is continuous improvement. Companies must constantly work on ways to improve their own processes, not just in the engineering development arena, but in order entry, manufacturing operations, product delivery, and customer service.
Continuous improvement requires that we first understand, and then respond to, the evolving expectations of our customers. In some cases, our customers need a variety of options on the same basic product. For example, a customer might require the same latch or hinge in a variety of colors. This drives us to increase the flexibility of our production process in terms of turn-around time and lot size manufactured.
- Environmental considerations. The end use of a latch--the environment that the fastener is operating in--must be understood at the very beginning of a project in order to yield an optimum design solution. Electromagnetic shielding is an important design consideration for electronic enclosures and the telecommunications industries. Resistance to salt spray is commonly needed for outdoor or marine applications. Resistance to UV light exposure is another frequently encountered specification in outdoor applications.
- Plastics. In many cases, plastics, particularly injection-molded plastics, are being used in place of traditional metal components. The design freedoms offered with injection molding are far greater than with traditional metals, and in many cases, strength is not an issue. The environment of the plastic application is also important. In some applications, plastic is more durable than many metals (e.g. salt spray exposure). While the physical properties of plastics continue to improve, metals clearly have the upper hand when high strength is a primary requirement.
- Simplicity. Another trend in access hardware supports the development of overall product simplicity. For example, using plastic-injection-molding techniques, a single latch component may perform the functions formerly carried out by three, four, or even five separate pieces. While this increases the complexity of the individual part, it simplifies the overall product design. This greatly improves the design for manufacturability and assembly and usually will yield a lower total manufacturing cost.
- Modifications. More and more of the latch and access-hardware business involves custom development. Southco engineers are often asked to modify an existing product out of our handbook, or to start from scratch to develop a product that will solve a specific design problem in a unique application. Such situations require working very closely with a customer's design team.
Southco's new Swell Latch with Living Hinge is a good example. Southco engineers worked closely with one of our automotive customers to modify the original latch. Through the creative use of plastic injection-molded parts, we were able to develop a new three-piece latch, down from five pieces in the original latch.
- Styling. For some design engineers, styling is as important a design consideration as function. We are getting more involved with a customer's engineering team up front, in the early development stages of a project, so that products can be integrated from an industrial design and styling standpoint. Aesthetics are important in a variety of industries ranging from computer and electronics to automotive and marine industries. In many cases, it is essential that the appearance characteristics of the latch be consistent with the appearance of the assembly, and in some cases, a theme must be carried across the entire product line.
- Ergonomics. Another key factor in industrial design consideration is ergonomics. In the past five to ten years, especially with the attention to carpel-tunnel syndrome and other repetitive-motion injuries, ergonomics has become a much more prevalent issue throughout industry. Customers expect new designs to be easier to use, more user friendly, and intuitively obvious to operate.
Latches and access hardware of the future
- Applications. In certain applications, access hardware will be integrated more fully into an entire assembly. So, where today we might have a latch with a separate keeper, future components will be formed into the entire assembly. This supports the trend towards "design for manufacturability," driving cost down and reducing parts count. Latches will also be required to interface with a wider variety of materials, including composites.
- Functions. Latches will increasingly have multiple functions. For example, electronically interfaced mechanisms and switches will incorporate the electronics and multiple functions into a single latch. Also, the latch will be capable of triggering interlocks and denoting an open or closed state of a cabinet or switch through remote monitoring. Overall, there will be a greater integration of electronics into latches and hinges.
- Materials. Clearly, there will be increasing use of plastics. The newer plastics will be more durable and cost competitive. However, metal injection-molding will also become more popular. It will be used particularly in applications where price can be driven down with high-volume production. Also, there are many composite materials which need to be explored for cost-effective utilization in specialized latching and fastening applications.
Technology and the environment throughout industry are rapidly changing. The latch and access-hardware industry is no different. Our goal at Southco is to grow with the times, to thoroughly understand the role that we can fill for our customers in these evolving technologies, and then provide the very best, creative solutions.