Latching onto a good idea

Trends in the latch and access fastener industry directly reflect the evolving design needs of the Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) designer. Some of those needs include latches that aid in the management of electromagnetic shielding, or withstand high levels of UV exposure, or resist a variety of chemicals or cleaning agents.

Today’s trends are being driven by new technologies, as well as environmental, safety, and economic considerations. In addition, everyone today expects shorter development cycle times and a high value to cost ratio.

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. There’s an increased use of plastics to replace metal parts, and multiple functions are being integrated into a single latch.

Many factors are influencing the industry today. Turnaround and Cycle times are key design issues, and are driving a widespread increase in the use of CAD and rapid prototyping technologies. Quality is something that is taken for granted, which requires that we first understand, and then respond to, the evolving expectations of our customers, then drives us to increase the flexibility of our production process in terms of turn-around times and lot size manufactured.

In many cases, plastics, particularly injection moulded plastics, are being used in place of traditional metal components. The design freedoms offered with injection moulding 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, such as those where components are exposed to salt spray, plastic is more durable than many metals. While the physical properties of plastics continue to improve, metals clearly have the upper hand when high strength is a primary requirement.

The end use of a latch, ie 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 for outdoor applications.

Another trend in access hardware supports the development of overall product simplicity. For example, using plastic injection moulding 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.

Another trend is in the redesign of existing products. More and more of the latch and access hardware business involves modifications and special products that are custom developed to meet a specific application.

Southco’s new Swell Latch with Living Hinge is a good example. The Swell Latch is currently a popular latch in the automotive industry. Southco engineers worked closely with one of our automotive customers to modify the 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.

For some design engineers, styling is as important a design consideration as function 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 are consistent with the appearance of the assembly, and in some cases it must carry a theme across the entire product line.

Another key 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. Designs have to be more user friendly, and intuitively obvious to operate.

WHAT THE FUTURE HOLDS

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.

We will see more access hardware with multiple functions. In certain applications, access hardware will be integrated more fully into an entire assembly. A latch’s components, for example, will be formed into the entire assembly rather than having a separate keeper. 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.

Clearly, there will be increasing use of plastics. The newer plastics will be more durable and cost competitive. However, metal injection-moulding 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 utilisation in specialised latching and fastening applications.

Technology and the environment throughout industry is rapidly changing. The latch and access hardware industry is no different. The goals of the manufacturers in the industry must be to grow with the times, to thoroughly understand the role that we can fill for our customers in these evolving technologies, and then to provide the very best, creative solutions.

Latches and hinges will increasingly have multiple functions. Southco’s Grabber Catch features an integral micro-switch which opens and closes switch contacts as a panel door opens and closes

In many hinge and latch applications, plastics, specifically injection molded plastics, are being used. There will be more plastics used in the future as newer plastics become more durable and cost competitive. Southco’s Flush Simplicity` Latch offers a simple, low profile design. It is easily installed into a single, round hole

INFORMATION: SOUTHCO EUROPE LTD Tel: 01452 715400.