Cable identification – there’s more to it than meets the eye

Editor’s note: Sometimes it’s the seemingly simple and ubiquitous components that get overlooked or are taken for granted in an electronics or electrical design. This can prove disastrous in your design.

Stephen Earley, TE Connectivity's global product manager for wire and cable identification, explains why it's important to select the right type of identification marker for the job – and why the ink and printing techniques are just as important as the label or sleeve itself.

As a technician, if you're about to work on an electrical installation and are faced with an array of devices, terminations, cables and wires, how do you tell which is which? This is when identification markers come into play. Its job is to ensure that technicians and engineers can quickly identify devices and cables during inspections, refurbishment, repair or refit. However, choosing the wrong type of identification marker can result in hidden costs – if the mark is no longer visible or in place, it will cost time, money and frustration.

Which marker is the best?

Most installers and their customers have personal preferences of which type of identification marker they think is best. Markers range from pre-printed slide-on, snap markers and printable flat, self-laminating or flag-style pressure sensitive labels, to heat shrink sleeves used on cables in harsh environments. With so much variety available, installers often turn to well-known brands or make their choice based on recommendations from a colleague they trust.

However, it's worth learning more about choosing the right product for the application as the right marker can save time, money and frustration.

They can often be exposed to chemicals, moisture, mechanical wear and tear, extreme temperatures and strong sunlight, all of which can reduce their life. The printing can rub off or fade or the material itself may become brittle. It’s important to choose a marker that will remain in place and readable so that maintenance technicians will be able to find a cable or termination quickly and efficiently.

The material is selected based on the temperature and conditions it will need to face during its life, so for example, a polyvinylidene fluoride label can resist waters, oils and cleaning agents as well as UV light. Alternatively, a heat shrink sleeve based on an irradiated cross-linked polyolefin can be used to identify wire and cable in really tough environments. This includes aviation where the wire, cable, and printed marker will experience extreme and frequent heat cycles between hot and cold as an aircraft takes off, flies, and lands. A third example is polyimide, which can be used as an adhesive label on printed circuit boards, as it can withstand the heat of soldering.

As well as taking into consideration the material for adhesive labels, the actual adhesive needs to be matched to the type of surface that the label needs to adhere to. It is relatively straightforward to find an adhesive to stick to a surface like glass but powder coated surfaces such as electrical cabinets have a low surface tension and require special adhesives.

Design and testing

When creating an identification marker, the ink and printing techniques are just as important as the label or sleeve itself. Many years of materials science have gone into the development of identification markers. To achieve long-term performance, we use a system approach that includes the material, printer ink, printer settings and print software.

Extensive and ongoing laboratory testing proves that the performance of the markers reaches industry standards. This includes simulating the stress caused by a tough environment with exposure to a combination of different chemicals, high or low temperatures, UV light, mechanical wear or proximity on a printed circuit board to the short but extreme heat of soldering.

Control and traceability are also key during manufacturing. Although the same ingredients may be used in the same quantities, the quality of the end product can still vary because of variables in the production process such as temperatures and mixing rates. Even the grain size of a chemical additive during production can also affect the long-term performance. However, tight control and traceability of the product, raw materials and manufacturing will lead to consistently high-quality markers that are dependable, readable and will remain firmly attached.

Ultimately, it’s important to check that the identification solution meets the standards and technical specifications of the application.

For more information visit TE Connectivity Identification & Labeling site.

4 comments on “Cable identification – there’s more to it than meets the eye

  1. antedeluvian
    September 21, 2017

    As Steve says in his note at the beginning, we engineers often fail to take into account that our systems are part of a greater whole and must be interconnected. There is a magzaine dedicated to this subject “Cabling Installation and Maintenance” which is surprising on two counts. First that there are still magazines and secondly because it is such a narrow subject.

    I might add that I did a blog on a different aspect of cabling “Tidy Your Wiring“. I must admit that I didn't deal with the topic of labelling, so Stephen, thanks for this blog.

  2. Steve Taranovich
    September 21, 2017

    @antedeluvian—-Thanks for that information about the cabling magazine—interesting, but I guess there are a great deal of options regarding aspects of cable and wire.

    How can print magazines make money nowadays? I do love print and I still read paper magazines and books, but I understand why magazines are going away from paper;however, I am not happy about that. It's a business decision I guess

  3. Bill_Jaffa
    September 22, 2017

    Yes, “Cabling Installation and Maintenance” is a great publication — keeps you up-to-date on latest in standards, proposed standards, and real-world practical issues such as PoE cables overheating in packed cable trays due to their own and neighbor-cable I2R drop self-heating and lack of airflow, thus causing dangerous conditions, and what the standards say about that (you would be suprised).

    Also looks at serious issues with counterfeitt cables which do not have required electrical properites to support the data rate claimed, or which fail their claimed fire-safety ratings (in one case, all the comm cables had to be ripped out and redone, per orer of fire marshal and buikding inspector).

    And also has a sense of humor, to, with photos of absolutely worst nightmare “rat's nest” installations their readers have seen–some at “high-end” offices or facilties!

  4. Victor Lorenzo
    September 22, 2017

    Cable labeling is extremenly useful for maintenance, troubleshooting and wiring. And color coding is also of great help. I use color coding extensively and saves me a lot of time.

    But talking about colors brings me back one more “lesson from the trash can” I was planning to talk about: human abilities and disabilities. Some time ago while I was working for another company they hired one apprentice for wiring one machine that we were working on. We used a bunch of cables for connecting tens of sensors and actuators. Many cables were coded using color combinations (blue-red-black on white, to name one combination).

    Nothing worked! Why? The apprentice was not able to see the lady, ;P, in this picture below:

    Surprisingly, He didn't know about his condition.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.