Analog Angle Blog

Yes, Do Put Your Label on Me

I recently helped a friend upgrade his home multimedia installation, which included lots of devices connected to each other as well as externally connected cables. It was a frustrating experience due to the overall complexity of the set-up, as well as near-total lack of labeling of many of the cables and their routing we were planning to re-use. In short: it was a spaghetti-like mess, with each interconnect maintaining near-perfect anonymity.

While I know that “wireless” is a hot buzzword right now which everyone is popping like candy, the unavoidable reality is that cables will be with us for a long time: line AC power, low-voltage AC power, low-voltage DC power, USB, RF, basic switch closures… the list goes on. There are many things for which wireless is technically inadequate, unreliable, insecure, hard to configure, or too costly. In fact, interconnection via a suitable cable and connectors is often the smartest – or only – way to get signals or power from point A to point B and back while still meeting multiple performance objectives.

That’s why it‘s a simple, smart move to label all those cables especially in the prototype and debug phase, and even the pilot-run build state. Sure, that’s common sense, but in the heat of product-development and release battle, it’s easy to say, “we’ll get to that later.” That well-intentioned “later” often becomes “never,” of course.

There’s really no excuse, as neatly and clearly labeling cables these days is fairly easy. The trusty old “®%3C-sup%3E-labelmanager-organizer-xpress–1 Dymo” embossing label maker of decades past (Figure 1 ) is now largely a museum relic, although it still available along with embossing tapes (yes, I have one!) while easy-to-use portable label units such as the “p-touch” series from Brother Mobile Solutions are available in many sizes (Figure 2 ), configurations and capabilities including downloading of labels. The label tapes are available with various color backgrounds, or clear; extra-flexible specifically for labeling cables; and extra-strength adhesive for rough surfaces, among other types, so they are well-suited to the task.

Figure 1

Those were the days: At one time, mechanical tape-embossing units were the only low-cost, on-the-spot way to generate labels, with a very tangible and tactile feel despite their awkwardness. (Image source: Dymo/Newell Brands)

Those were the days: At one time, mechanical tape-embossing units were the only low-cost, on-the-spot way to generate labels, with a very tangible and tactile feel despite their awkwardness. (Image source: Dymo/Newell Brands)

Figure 2

Label-makers such as these P-Touch units from Brother make production of rugged, versatile labels into a quick and simple task, and they're inexpensive, too (Image source: Brother Mobile Solutions)

Label-makers such as these P-Touch units from Brother make production of rugged, versatile labels into a quick and simple task, and they’re inexpensive, too (Image source: Brother Mobile Solutions)

Among the publications/web sites I read regularly is “ Cabling Installation & Maintenance,” and despite what seems at first— a simple, mundane topic, there are many levels of real-world complexity and sophistication to the subject. Each month, they also publish pictures of truly horrendous cabling installations (all anonymous); some are home upgrades, but many are in professional offices and even “better-class” commercial and industrial settings. These installations would fail any relevant safety standard, but also have serious safety issues with respect to cable density, power, and self-heating; mixing of low- and high-voltage runs without proper precautions, and more. As for reliability, the fact that these systems work at all, let alone for some period of time, is amazing. (Not all installations are such disasters – in my behind-the-scenes tour of CBS production headquarters in New York (See Do They Know that “Analog” Makes Digital TV Possible?), each copper and fiber cable in the hundreds of racks and bays was perfectly routed, pristine, and had immaculate labeling.)

Cable labeling is such an important issue that there’s even an ANSI/TIA standard defining recommended practices, as well as cable-label and tracking software (see External References ). Of course, these are way “too much” for the prototype bench or pilot run. You don’t need a real label-maker (although they are inexpensive)—plain white tape will do.

How did I know this? Way back in the day, I worked on a project led by a seasoned veteran of prototype and debug efforts. He was an advocate of team efficiency while also making sure the solution was not bigger than the problem, a characteristic which leads to the “optimum” solution being ignored as too much of a hassle. His approach was simple: write on a piece of white tape and wrap it around the cable. If possible, also indicate on the tape the nature of what’s on that cable, such as AC power, DC power, switch closure, and so on. But don’t try write from where to what that cable goes; instead – and this was most important– also put a unique identifying number on that tape label. Then, in a simple logbook, we’d also write down the cable number, cable type (material, vendor if important, connector if special, signal type, and what it connected to at each end). Since it was in a log book, we had room to put all sorts of notes, too. This system was easy to use, easy to update, and easy to enhance, both for the total installation and for individual cables (such as “we’re not sure, but that connector may not be 100% OK”). Every week or so, someone would type this up into a readable document on the lab PC, print it out, and put it in the project next to the unit under investigation. Simple, effective, and extremely useful — you can’t ask for much more!

What’s been your experience with unlabeled or poorly labeled cables in development, debug, and prototype settings? Have you or team members ever been “guilty” of sloppiness which resulted in wasted time and avoidable frustration? It’s OK to admit it…..>/p>

Internal References

Obscure AC line connectors challenge designers, consumers

Giving Connector Contacts Adequate Consideration

Battery & connector diversity: Sensible design, or casual engineering?

Sophisticated Cables: Not Just for RF

Cable Assemblies: Ignore Them and Be Sorry

External References

Cabling Installation & Maintenance, ANSI/TIA-606-B standard approved for publication

Cabling Installation & Maintenance, Cable labeling in the data center made easy: On the intelligent management of cables

Cabling Installation & Maintenance, More than alphabet soup, AIM and DCIM strive to provide tangible value to users

2 comments on “Yes, Do Put Your Label on Me

  1. CameronRobertson
    October 15, 2018

    This makes me happy that I know a little bit about how to get my computer systems and appliances set up. I had such a good time getting everything all organized in my home and making the wiring setup all neat and tidy! It's actually kind of therapeutic to see how everything gets so neatly tied up and set aside. Spaghetti wires give me anxiety in comparison!

  2. EdwardThirlwall
    February 26, 2019

    I have always loved labelling and no, it isn't because I am an organizing freak but it is just that I simply love printing the labels. Yes, childish but at the same time so neat and tidy around the clock. It has become a habit of mine and I have to say that my hobby increases as the day passes which definitely helps keep everything in place.

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