Aiming for constant growth, Conductores Tecnológicos de Juárez has adapted to a Japanese work culture with Mexican creativity processes and product innovation, as Susana Baumann discovers.
Not many companies worldwide can offer over 400 years of experience in any industry. Moreover, being part of a company with this type of background demands great responsibility and commitment to contribute to the continuation of such history.
Conductores Tecnológicos de Juárez S.A. de C.V. (Con Tec) is a wiring harness manufacturing company that operates under the umbrella of the Sumitomo Group, one of the largest Japanese corporate conglomerates that started in 1950, and includes operations in automotive, coal, metals, chemical products, real estate and finance.
Direct parent company to Con Tec is Hartec Material Services Center, located in El Paso, Texas, acting as the Mexican headquarters. Hartec itself belongs to the North America conglomerate of Sumitomo Electric Wiring Systems, Inc. (SEWS) with administrative headquarters in Bowling Green, Ken.
SEWS was established as a single-point system integrator, designing and delivering complete electrical and electronics systems to the automobile manufacturing industry. SEWS is an independent U.S. corporation owned by Sumitomo Electric Industries of Osaka, one of the world’s leading companies in the research and development of leading-edge, high-technology products and systems; and Sumitomo Wiring Systems of Yokkaichi, a leading manufacturer of wiring harnesses, both in Japan.
In 1986, the two companies combined in a joint venture to form Sumitomo Electric Wiring Systems, an American corporation, to respond to the evolving world of car electronics and car manufacturers requiring more complex and advanced wiring harnesses. Sumitomo Electric Industries brought to the new company its technological expertise, in conjunction with progressive research and development, new materials and electronically based systems, which are the foundation for optoelectronics development.
Sumitomo Wiring Systems, on the other hand, was expanding the global scope of its operations to meet today’s increasingly sophisticated wiring needs through production facilities in Malaysia, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Indonesia, India, the United Kingdom, Brazil, Thailand, Mexico and the United States, and sales offices in Detroit, Michigan and London, England.
In addition to SEWS’ headquarters in Kentucky, its sales and customer relations offices are located in Ohio, Kentucky, Alabama, Michigan, and Ontario. Manufacturing sites for the company are in Kentucky and Ohio in the United States, and Juárez, Chihuahua City, Torreón, Gómez Palacio, Los Mochis, Zacatecas, and Coahuila in Mexico.
“Con Tec was founded in 1986 by Canadian investors, but Sumitomo Electric Wiring Systems purchased the company in 1992. In four years, the Mexican operation developed several plants and additional products,” said Lic. Raúl Ruiz, corporate, human resources and finances manager at the Juárez plants.
Today, the Mexican operation counts 18 plants and more than 13,200 associates. Together with the U.S. operation, SEWS’ associates work to provide electronic distribution systems to North American automobile manufacturers. “Although the company manufactures harnesses in other locations such as Japan, Europe China and Brazil, distribution is territorialized according to the needs of each region,” said Ruiz.
Con Tec’s six plants in Juárez manufacture wiring harnesses, producing around seven million pieces a year. A wiring harness, an organized set of wires, terminals and connectors, carries electrical current and signals to a vehicle’s features. Harnesses are found in the cockpit, the engine compartment, the interior, cabin and doors. Applications of wiring harnesses in electrical and electronic systems spark the safety as well as the functional features in automobiles, trucks, all-terrain vehicles, motorcycles and even watercrafts.
Wiring harnesses are electrical distribution systems unique to each make and model, developed in an unlimited range of configurations that must work efficiently. Like the nervous system in the human body, wiring harnesses carry all the signals and electrical power throughout the vehicle. With the increasing demand of power features in all means of transportation, the demand for reliable and cost-effective wiring harnesses has grown in the past years, and the industry is growing with it, at a rate of 10 percent a year.
“Our main competitors are Yazaki Corporation from Japan, Lear Corporation and Delphi Automotive Systems, both based in Michigan. The global market is very competitive because companies are increasing efficiency, innovation and fast response,” Ruiz explained. “A faulty product may mean the loss of revenues and even contracts with our clients, so our company is very flexible at accommodating our clients’ needs and requirements.”
The company responds to advances in vehicle electronics by developing and enhancing harness components, electronic control units and automating the assembly process. The use of advanced technologies, such as fiber optics and multiplexing, is the company’s commitment to create all-inclusive solutions to respond to the daring world of automotive and truck electronics.
Con Tec plants cover 1.032 million square feet . Each plant has highly specialized operators and supervisors working at the assembly lines. Wiring harnesses require intensive labor, and each assembly line can require from 20 to 120 operators, according to the process stage. “We do not have hiring preferences, but the resources are the result of the region’s demographics. Women have shown to be very skillful at this type of work,” Ruiz said, “While many elements of the manufacturing process are automated, the finished product is still very much made by hand.”
Con Tec is ISO: 9000 certified, as well al QS-9000, ISO: 14001 and ISO/TS: 16949 certified per requirement of General Motors. The company is frequently audited by clients Honda, Toyota and General Motors as well as engineers and technicians from other plants within the group. “We work with our clients’ design and engineering teams; we listen to their suggestions, and try to understand their needs, requirements and specifications,” said Ruiz. Ten percent of its production stays in Mexico at the Honda assembly plant, while the rest is exported to the United States.
The company has several quality control systems in place as a lean manufacturer, and works with the Kaizen system of continuous improvement, which involves the elimination of waste, not only material waste but also activities that add cost but do not add value, just-in-time delivery, paced moving lines, right-sized equipment, and others. Poka-yokes – mechanisms used to mistake-proof an entire process – perform a detective function, eliminating defects in the process as early as possible. “We work with a 200 to 300 percent line inspection in which every operator controls and inspects the piece or unit as it comes to his/her hands until the end of the line. There are also critical points where the pieces are inspected with special equipment,” Ruiz explained.
Although Con Tec employs Japanese technology, research and engineering know-how to develop solutions that are innovative, Mexican expertise and knowledge has greatly contributed to the company’s development of unique solutions to difficult problems. Mexican engineers analyze and redesign some parts of the process or the equipment in order to improve productivity. For instance, they engineered a two-tier line for the Honda Odyssey harness, which is a large piece. The line, called yama bico line, which means “subway” in Japanese, is 14 meters long, and has been visited and studied by engineers and technicians from manufacturing plants worldwide.
Con Tec teams have also participated at SEWS North America gatherings where different plants presented new projects to streamline the product development process. “It was the first time our plant was participating and we obtained the second position with a project that prevents damage to the air-bag connector,” said Ruiz proudly.
SEWS’ goal for the next two years is to aggressively increase market participation to 20 percent, an increase of 5 percent from the current benchmarks. The company is betting on innovation, process reengineering and efficiency, prototype designs and the increasing demand of its products for electric or hybrid cars. According to Ruiz, the company is already manufacturing an array of products for this evolving market. “Cost, size, performance, quality and time are important issues to market our products if we want to lead the global markets. To achieve that level, our associates are committed to uphold the company’s main goals related to safety, quality, productivity and customer satisfaction,” he concluded.