Affirmation is a great thing for the person or organization being affirmed. But, it can be just as beneficial for the affirmer, in the right situation.
Wire harness maker Chief Enterprises LLC (CEL) will strongly attest to this fact. Over the past 20 plus years, the Elmhurst, IL-based company has become successful by continually saying yes to manufacturers that need uncommon harnesses other shops can’t or won’t build.
“We stick to making the oddball harnesses, i.e., those that are not normally done in a typical wire harness shop,” explains Kevin Hultquist, COO and vice president of engineering and technology at CEL. “Many involve the use of nonstandard processes, such as using glue in connectors, and are simple, containing just two or four wires and a small number of circuits or connectors. Others can be complex in terms of process engineering, special materials or sorting characteristics, such as a specified coating or color-coded wire.”
This approach to harness assembly has paid off well for CEL since 1999, when it made some simple harnesses for automotive customers of Robert Bosch GmbH as a favor to the company. CEL was distributing various Bosch automotive components and assembling windshield wiper systems for them at the time, according to Hultquist. The company began distributing the components about five years after its founding in 1991 by Jim Gabelman and son Andy as a metals business that supplied custom metal reels, blanks and tube lighting to Midwest companies to make their own signs.
Today, the metals business is gone, and part distribution, specialty design services, and manufacturing and selling power distribution modules are the main sources of CEL’s income. This fact, however, in no way lessens the company’s reputation as a well-known assembler of high-quality, niche harnesses for manufacturers in industries as diverse as agricultural equipment, electric vehicles and snowmobiles.
To hear Hultquist tell it, CEL’s harness making division began with a simple yes to a request from business partner Bosch. It seems the automotive parts manufacturer was simply too big to cost-effectively make small batches of simple harnesses for some customers, and asked CEL if it could handle the work.
“The first harnesses we assembled were only about 1 foot long and used for automotive fuel injection systems,” says Hultquist. “Each harness had only two wires. But, we were happy to help Bosch with this request and solve a problem they had, while remaining transparent.”
Impressed with CEL’s harness work, Bosch began sending more work their way on a regular basis. The relationship has continued to strengthen over the past 25 years, in both wire-harness building and electrical connector distribution. As a result, CEL is now Bosch’s only connector distributor to Tier 1 and Tier 2 automotive suppliers in North America.
With its harness division consistently growing, CEL decided to reach out to other suppliers to form distribution and harness-making partnerships. Over time, these came to fruition with companies like TE Connectivity (engineered electric components), Amphenol Sine (heavy-duty interconnect systems), Hongfa (signal, power and latching relays), VTE Inc. (terminal insulators and bus bars) and EGIS Mobile Electric (electrical power and battery protection technology).
“All of these relationships bring us a lot of harness-assembly work on a regular basis,” notes Hultquist. “The projects are for offbeat or nonstandard harnesses, usually in a volume from 50 to less than a few thousand. But, just as importantly, the harnesses are used in a wide range of industries, which further extends our market reach.”
Hultquist says CEL has tracked its harnesses being used in nearly 20 different industries over the last decade or so. The most popular are agricultural equipment, automotive, electric vehicles, snowmobiles, and all-terrain (ATV) and utility track vehicles (UTVs). Others include construction equipment, buses, engines, fire and emergency vehicles, marine craft, and lawn and garden equipment.
“People often assume that all large manufacturers get treated the same by harness makers, but this is just not the case,” says Hultquist. “Take John Deere, for example. It needs high-quality harnesses as much as any automaker. However, it requires a slightly different harness than the automotive one and it’s annual production may be 5,000 units compared to millions for a large vehicle OEM. Many shops are not interested in producing a limited amount of unique harnesses, but we always are.”
Not long after entering the harness market, CEL was frequently asked by agricultural-equipment and other manufacturers to make harnesses that better withstood vibration and harsh weather conditions. For example, Polaris made this request to improve the performance of its snowmobiles, ATVs and UTVs.
“We learned quickly that the effects of vibration and harsh weather on harnesses are a big deal for manufacturers,” explains Hultquist. “Most of their harnesses feature connectors similar to those used in automobiles, and traditionally, the harness makers have simply snapped each wire into the connector. Also traditionally, though, the snowmobile and equipment owners got used to just replacing the harness when there was any problem related to the attached component, like a fuel injector. Our design team looked for a better alternative to this short-use-and-toss approach.”
According to Hultquist, CEL engineers worked closely with those at Bosch to investigate the use of an adhesive to improve the stability and endurance of the wire-connector interface. The engineers were also able to collaborate with an undisclosed adhesive supplier to develop a proprietary two-component formulation to use at the interface.
“It took about a year of work to test and validate the right adhesive for this purpose,” says Hultquist. “Now, many customers spec this simple process in the harnesses we build for them. After a 0.5-gram dot of adhesive is automatically dispensed into the connector opening, it settles deeply into the joint. The worker manually presses the wire inside until it clicks into place. Curing takes just a few seconds without the need for heat or UV light.”
Along with custom harnesses, CEL regularly makes diagnostic, jumper, pigtail, plug-and-play and specialty harnesses, along with terminated wire leads. Jumper harnesses convert the electronic control unit (ECU) wiring in one car to that of another car.
A pigtail harness features individual stripped wires (pigtails) at one end and a connector compatible with the target ECU at the other end. Those made by CEL usually serve as small wire leads for Bosch auto service parts.
CEL plug-and-play harnesses can be used in many applications, including with the company’s BRIC (breathable and robust interconnection center) power distribution modules. Each module consists of a cover and base that snap together and are made of high-impact polyphenylene ether and polyamide plastic. CEL assembles all three series of the BRIC (Standard, Fusion and Mini) modules at its Elmhurst facility.
“Even though we’ve only made and sold the modules since 2016, they now account for the highest percentage of our sales income, about one-third overall,” explains Hultquist. “We have hundreds of customers that are currently using one or more modules. Most of them buy the modules with our harnesses, although many buy the BRIC alone and build their own harnesses.”
Each cover is custom laser marked at one station on the assembly floor. The worker uses software to call up specifically arranged words and graphics, then activates a Telesis EVCDS machine to use a laser to apply the markings to the cover.
At a different station, another worker uses a Dukane iQ Servo ultrasonic welding machine to join two or more components to form the module base. The process takes less than 20 seconds, after which the worker performs a leak test on the base.
As for the CEL harness used with the BRIC module, it contains 12 to 48 medium-thickness wires, with small ferrules terminated on one end and copper conductors ultrasonically welded together on the other by a Stapla Ultrasonics Corp. machine. The termination and welding processes are done at separate stations.
Next, the harness is brought to a third station where a worker uses a hand-operated hydraulic press to crimp a one-hole lug compression connector over the welded copper section. She also places a small black band over the center of the wires to keep them together during shipping. After receiving the harness, the OEM installs it by plugging the ferrules into terminal cavities in the module base and bolting the connector to a bus bar or other electricity element.
“Our customers like the module because it allows for component configurability, and the components support a continuous electrical load up to 300 amps,” notes Hultquist. “In addition, the cover offers one-hand release for easy component access, and all of the modules are compact enough for applications with limited space.”
The modules use MCP 2.8 receptacles from TE Connectivity that provide up to 40 continuous amps per terminal, which securely retains the inserted wire. An IP67-rated compression seal frames the cover and keeps water, dust and debris out, even in the harshest conditions.
Another key feature is the hydrophobic vent. According to Hultquist, the vent alleviates pressure in the sealed chamber by filtering out component-produced heat and letting in cool air that is free of moisture and debris.
When CEL first opened its doors in 1991, it operated a 3,500-square-foot unit in a multi-tenant building in Elmhurst, IL. The company grew out of that space by 1996, when it moved to its second location in the town—a 9,000-square-foot facility with 1,000 feet dedicated to assembly. By 2000, CEL had doubled the size of the building and assembly area to meet its production needs. In 2005, the company moved to its current home, which encompasses 26,000 square feet, including 3,500 square feet for assembly and production.
Fifty six people work here, with half doing management and office work, and half in assembly and production. The assemblers work in either of two shifts: 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., or 1 p.m. to 9 p.m.
According to Hultquist, CEL makes close to 500,000 harnesses annually, using 22 to 10 AWG wire supplied by New Berlin, WI-based IEWC. The harnesses range in length from a few inches to 15 feet and contain from one to 15 connectors.
For the past five years, CEL has also operated a small sales and distribution center in Chihuahua, Mexico, to cover the Latin America market. It employs a full-time staff of 13 people.
“Our harness production has grown significantly in the last decade, by at least 10 percent per year,” acknowledges Hultquist. “More than 50 companies are currently buying our harnesses, with agricultural-equipment manufacturers definitely being the biggest customers.”
At the Elmhurst facility, a large amount of wire is measured, cut, stripped and crimped by an automated Alpha 455 machine made by Komax. A sealing module is attached to the machine and used as needed to seal wire.
CEL assemblers here also use two other Komax machines. The Komax BT 752 performs stripping, seal loading and crimping; and the Komax 332 unit lets workers measure the pull-off force of any processed wire.
Two additional machines are available to optimize wire processing. One is a semiautomatic AMP series stripper crimper made by TE Connectivity. When a worker positions the wire against the wire stop, the machine automatically strips and crimps the wire in one cycle. Also utilized is a Kingsley Modprint machine for hot stamp marking of wire.
“The month of December is usually the slowest for us during the year, with workers taking up to three weeks off,” says Hultquist. “However, this past December our production needs prevented us from taking any time off.”
To limit cost and improve the quality of assemblies, testing is performed at every stage of production. Final inspection is performed by workers who specialize in this task.
All test fixtures are built in-house by the engineering staff. CEL also uses Dynalab and Cirrus testing equipment to ensure that each wire has been terminated and plugged into the appropriate connector.
Assembly training is done in-house by production managers and senior assemblers, some of whom have 20 years of experience. All assemblers are cross-trained in both simple and advanced tasks, like using equipment to properly dispense glue into a connector and then manually inserting the mating wire.
Because both CEL facilities are “internally paperless”—and store all business data in cloud-based programs—hands-on training is accompanied by a tablet that contains work instructions of all assembly processes. Shipping and receiving personnel also use tablets to access the documents they need to send out finished assemblies.
“We have monthly, quarterly and yearly sales goals, with the previous month, quarter and year’s total serving as the benchmark to surpass,” explains Hultquist. “The best way we found to achieve these goals is with world-class customer service based on constant communication. Our policy is to never leave a customer in the dark regarding its order. This means we never go more than 24 hours without contacting them in some way regarding their order status, be it a phone call, online chat, email or text message.”
Being paperless is just one part of CEL’s continuous improvement (CI) program. Another aspect involves using its Oracle NetSuite enterprise resource planning system to fully track all product sales and harness orders from submittal through completion.
“CI increasingly improves our business in a tangible way,” says Hultquist. “We’ve been able to reduce time to market by using an artificial intelligence (AI) model that predicts demand for our production facility, and a labor shortage predictive model that allows us to identify possible labor shortages in the future.”
Equally important, CEL has integrated a preventative maintenance program for all of its equipment into Oracle NetSuite. This approach optimizes machine uptime to better meet customers’ deadlines and quality requirements.
Hultquist says the company’s quality metric for the past several years has been to have less than 100 defective parts per million. In 2021, the rate was 4.9. He says a big reason for this is all nonconforming items are immediately tagged and quarantined.
“We are a Great Place to Work certified company and have been BSI ISO 9001 certified since 2001,” Hultquist points out. “Both achievements mean a lot to us. The first stems from our high employee satisfaction and retention levels. Meeting the latter standard shows that our management system consistently provides products and services that meet customer and regulatory requirements.”
Another important certification is ISO 14001, the international standard for environmental management systems. CEL uses all LED lighting in its warehouse and has removed lead from its parts and processes. It also reuses pallets and customer returnable packaging whenever possible.
On the supply chain side, several CEL managers have completed Assent Compliance training to better manage key data and increase transparency. The company also has mobile shipping and receiving stations that allow personnel to more quickly obtain raw materials and get finished product sent to customers.
“We follow our ISO procedures and only use approved material and component vendors that meet or exceed our quality standards,” explains Hultquist. “Through these close relationships, we reduce costs by purchasing large quantities of critical components for multiple customers. To further reduce waste and save money, our engineers constantly review all assembly processes.”
Many manufacturers have been decimated by the COVID-19 pandemic over the past 20 months. But, CEL was able to retain all of its production personnel thanks to company cost-cutting and a constant stream of work orders.
“We increased pay for our frontline workers, and paid hazard pay for production workers during state lockdowns,” says Hultquist. “We also implemented a COVID-19 Safety Playbook by providing all workers with PPE, screening protocols, social distancing and deep cleaning twice a week.”
When CEL turned 30 last year, it did so in excellent financial shape—and with two goals in mind. One is to greatly expand sales beyond North and Central America. The other is to double its manufacturing floor space to 7,000 square feet by the end of March 2022 to significantly increase the production of BRIC modules and related harnesses.
“OEMs in various industries have often described us as being ‘small enough to be flexible, yet exceedingly professional,’” notes Hultquist. “We agree, because all of our processes, certifications and technology allow us to operate at a high standard and provide high-quality assemblies. No job is too big for Chief, but, more importantly, no job is too small.”