Industrial Automation

Modular Connectivity Leads to More Flexibility and Major Labor Savings

Ryan Smith

With so much changing very quickly in manufacturing, sometimes it’s easy to overlook just how far technology has come.

Five or six decades ago, for example, most component cables and wires were hardwired and permanent, creating a labyrinth of non-movable parts—especially in complex or multifunctional machines.


Most machines that utilize hardwiring methods are built by machine builders, tested at each input/output point and then installed; it’s a very labor-intensive process. Due to the size of today’s machinery, the wiring often has to be disassembled before the machine can be moved to its new home. Once it’s in place, it has to be reassembled, rewired and retested by a licensed electrician.


Hardwiring gets the job done by bringing power to machinery, but it’s expensive and requires a lot of time, skill and knowledge to troubleshoot and maintain. (Imagine the testing involved to find a failure point or small installation error among hundreds of wires!)


What Modular Connectivity Brings to the Table

As technology changes, the methods we use to get power to equipment must also change.


As an alternative to hardwiring, modular connectivity (using connectors in place of hardwiring to create a quick-disconnection solution) first came into play in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It changed the factory floor.


The 7/8” connector, featuring 10 A of power, was the first quick-disconnection solution for power distribution and large sensor/actuator applications. In the last decade, these 7/8” connectors have given way to M12 power connectors, which strike an ideal balance of size, performance and easy handling.


M12 technology reduces connector profiles by up to 50% while increasing power delivery to 16 A. This type of modular connectivity offers additional benefits, too.


1. It’s Based on Standardization

M12 power connectors are designed to comply with IEC International Standards; 7/8” connectors didn’t follow any particular guidelines. This lack of standards created deviation among connectors based on the manufacturer.


Standardization of today’s M12 power connectors means that all manufacturers speak the same language and use the same technology to distribute data and power in the same way.


2. It Streamlines Project Scheduling

Modular connectivity supports streamlined project scheduling. In other words, not everyone has to attempt to wire the machine at the same time!


This is especially important when more than one company is involved in wiring. Consider a variable frequency drive (VFD) controller, for example: The panel might be manufactured at a panel shop while the motor is built by the machine builder.


A hardwired approach would require many “layers” of labor working in one small area simultaneously. With modular connectivity, however, the panel can be shipped to the installation location after it’s created at a different site; cabling can be run and plugged in as it’s installed.


3. It Decreases Labor Costs

Instead of hardwiring a machine (and then breaking it back down so it can be shipped and set back up again at the installation site), modular connectivity allows M12 connectors to be plugged in. Instead of disconnecting hardwiring, you simply disconnect cabling at one part of the machine and then plug it back in during installation. It’s as simple as plugging in a toaster.


In most situations, electricians aren’t needed to complete this portion of the job; a general laborer or trained technician can run the cabling to save time and money.


4. It Reduces Human Error

Different coding styles (S-coded, K-coded, T-coded, L-coded, etc.) among M12 connectors help make the devices foolproof and easily identifiable to prevent accidental mis-mated components (a low-power and high-power output, for example) or miswiring.


5. It Supports Faster Downtime Recovery

When something goes wrong with a hardwired component, a great amount of labor is required to replace cables and get the machine up and running again.


If a hardwired cable breaks, the cable must be rewired from the power endpoint to the end-device output. If a hardwired motor burns up, all wires must be disconnected inside before it’s removed.


Modular connectivity makes situations like these much easier to deal with. If a cable breaks, you can replace a broken portion of cable or cut the wire and use a field-attachable connector. In the case of a nonfunctioning motor, you can unplug the cable from the motor, pull the motor out and plug a new motor in to get things moving quickly.


The World’s Strongest M12 Connectors

Hardwiring isn’t obsolete—it will always have a place in factory automation. But some of today’s applications call for more versatility and flexibility with solutions that eliminate labor-intensive installation and simplify testing and maintenance.


Our M12 power connectors are 50% smaller than traditional connectors while providing 16 A of power.


Although most M12 connectors are 16 AWG (1.5 mm2), Belden’s M12 connectors have a diameter of 14 AWG (2.5 mm2) to ensure better performance. They carry more current and achieve better derating performance across long distances.


To prevent mis-mating, Belden’s connectors are color coded and available in four different coding options; each is shaped differently. Our M12 power connector options include:

  • Receptacles, which usually sit on the panel (the power output) and on the end device (the power input)
  • Cordsets, which plug into receptacles and can be compared to extension cords (a power cable with molded connectors)
  • Field-attachables, which allow you to create your own cordsets by cutting cables to specific lengths and installing field-attachable connectors instead of buying double-ended cordsets in customized lengths or attempting to manage excess cable.


M12 power connectivity is available with different cabling options, including PVC, PUR and TPE. All Belden connectors are UL Listed and meet the requirements of UL 2237—the standard for power distribution on factory machines.