Tensolite is a leading manufacturer of wire and cable, RF/microwave connectors and cable assemblies for the defense electronics, aerospace, telecommunications, avionics, computer/data applications, and test &measurement markets. Barbara Kram reports on the company’s vertical integration to get customers connected.
If you’ve ever installed a wireless network, you know just how much cable it takes. “Actually wireless has been very good to us as a wire and cable manufacturer,” observes Will Jensen, vice president of sales and marketing. “Those base stations that drive wireless networks or even wireless communication space satellites, require a lot of cable to power that architecture.”
It’s just one example of power and communications trends favoring Tensolite Corporation, one of the world’s leading designers and manufacturers of high-performance wire and cable, RF/microwave connectors and cable assemblies.
The history of Tensolite is a highlight reel of technological advances resulting in today’s favorable market position. In 1941, Henry Dudley Minich started the Tensolite Corporation as a research laboratory with a half-dozen people working out of an old house in North Tarrytown, N.Y. Technicians investigated how to adapt plastics and synthetic fibers for yarn, bristles, surgical sutures, decorative cords, ribbon and plastic textile sheeting. (The company’s name is short for the chief performance properties of tensile strength and light weight.)
In 1944, the company first researched and produced insulated wire for a defense contract to make electrically heated gloves and flying suits for Air Force pilots. After World War II, work with insulated wire continued for applications including hearing aid cordage and flexible phonograph tone arm wire.
By 1950, miniature wire insulation was needed for synthetic materials possessing high electrical resistivity plus flexibility, compactness, light weight, resistance to abrasion, temperature extremes, and corrosive chemicals. In April, 1950 the company became Tensolite Insulated Wire Co. Inc., founded by Minich and his son, Charles Harrison Minich. Manufacturing operations were moved to Tarrytown. The first line of products consisted of wire with wrapped or extruded vinyl plastic insulation. It was one of the first manufacturers of miniature wire and cable, and was the first to extrude PTFE (Teflon®) on to a wire for high-temperature applications.
In 1960, Tensolite became part of the Carlisle group, which provides the financial strength and resources to allow Tensolite to explore emerging technologies.
Among other firsts for Tensolite: In 1962, it developed a process to wrap polyimide tapes (Kapton®) on wire to produce a tougher, lighter airframe wire. Next, in 1985, Tensolite developed a unique process to extrude and expand PTFE in a continuous process, leading to a patented high-speed wire and cable product line that is a core technology today. In 1988, Tensolite developed the first arc track-resistant airframe wire (Tufflite 2000®), an industry standard in aerospace today.
Tensolite’s aerospace business took off from there. The company today does about 35 percent of its business in supplying wire and cable for commercial airlines. (Tensolite wire and cable assemblies will be featured on the new Boeing 787.)
Total Interconnect Solution
The company soon developed a strategic business model to respond to market trends including customers’ needs for a single-source supplier along the pipelines for power and data transmission. The “total interconnect solution” was born and, starting in 1998, Tensolite began making strategic acquisitions to integrate the brands it needed to build a fully integrated product line of cable, connectors and superior high-speed, high-density and RF/microwave cable assemblies. Through a single contact, customers can solve a variety of product needs, including design and production of unique cable configurations, custom high- frequency connectors, specialized complex harnesses and complete cable assemblies of any complexity.
“Large customers like aircraft manufacturers wanted a one-stop shop,” Jensen reflects. “There were a lot of supply line managers pushing to shrink their vendor base in a fragmented industry.” He notes that many companies can make connectors but few can also make high-performance cable. “We can manufacture it ourselves to keep our cost down and control the total supply and our destiny with individual customers.”
Several of the company’s brands are the result of strategic acquisitions. For example, in March 1998, Tensolite acquired VEMCO, a leading supplier of high speed, high-density and complex cable assemblies. VEMCO brings Tensolite unique and proprietary methods of terminating sub-miniature coaxial and balanced line cables to connectors. This includes highly engineered assembly processes designed to ensure superior electrical performance. Also in 1998, Tensolite acquired QMI, developer and manufacturer of RF/microwave connectors and cable assemblies. QMI brought its high performance test cables for demanding environments and gave Tensolite the ability to connect RF/microwave coaxial cable to high-frequency connectors to produce an integrated assembly. Tensolite is one of the few vertically integrated suppliers of RF/microwave interconnect products.
Next, in 2000, UniTrek joined the Tensolite team. The unit supplies RF assemblies and custom complex wire harnesses. In 2001 came the addition of Connecting Devices (CDI), a standout in the RF/microwave industry as one of the leading suppliers of high-performance coaxial connectors. This addition brought the technology to produce high-end defense electronics and optical telecommunications.
Today the company has about 700 employees at locations known as “centers for excellence” for its various product lines. The Saint Augustine, Fla. division is the cable group, focused on microwave and coaxial wire and cable for aerospace. In Long Beach, Calif. is the RF microwave connector group specializing in copper, brass, and stamped and formed products. Vancouver, Wash., is home to the harness and assembly house that integrates high-end test products and complex box builds.
Lean manufacturing and advanced production techniques put Tensolite at the forefront in terms of speed-to-market, a critical competitive edge. Kanbans (the staging of raw materials on an as-needed basis, pulled along the supply line) ensure that materials are where they need to be. “Between lean manufacturing and using Kanbans to pull material throughout the system, we have been able to reduce our manufacturing lead times,” Jensen says.
Some of the top product offerings for the company include NETflight® Avionics / IFE data bus cables. IFE, in flight entertainment, is a hot trend in commercial airline production as the carriers bring the latest in connectivity and entertainment options to globetrotting passengers.
“What you see in data wiring of commercial buildings is happening in aircraft now,” Jensen says. “Anything, whether it’s Internet or video, requires data bus cable. We have become the largest producer of IFE cable.”
The company produces a full range of electrical wire and cable for today’s sophisticated avionics and IFE systems. Standard and custom cables support protocols such as ARINC 629, Ethernet/100 base T, IEEE 1394, Fibre Channel, and others. All Tensolite designs use only aircraft-grade materials that exceed all major OEM requirements including temperature, smoke, flammability, and toxicity performance.
Tufflite 2000 general purpose airframe wire and cable is another hit. Tufflite 2000 was developed to address the critical weaknesses of existing airframe wire designs. Other constructions such as polyimide and XL-ETFE failed to provide a good balance of properties in areas such as arc-resistance, weight, size, temperature performance, smoke generation and flammability. Tufflite 2000 addresses the need for a small, lightweight, arc-resistant, 260º rated general purpose wire.
“What we’ve done on both microwave and aerospace is we have led the market in technology,” Jensen says. “The demand is always going to be there when you lead with technology in terms of performance for electrical, speed in data transmission, and in frequency on RF microwave.” “The commercial airline projections for the next three to six years are tremendous,” Jensen says.