The Volfinity project is unlike anything that’s ever been done at Molex.
“I was worried because there were so many unknowns,” said Colynn Goh, a Molex principal product design engineer based in Molex’s Singapore facility, known for its precision in high-quality delivery of tiny electronic connectors. “Never in Molex has there been a connector that’s so big.”
When the Volfinity project first arrived at Molex, Koch's electronic connectivity company, the project didn’t fit into any of the typical product groups within the company, said Victor Lim, the senior product design manager of the Singapore engineering team. It required designing and building connectors on a significantly larger scale. The Volfinity connectors were to link individual battery cells together to form a larger battery, like those you would find in an electric vehicle or used for long-term energy storage. It would also connect the group of battery cells to the rest of the system.
The project started in 2015. At the time, most of the Singapore team was working on designing the tiny connectors used for sim cards in your cell phone. They’d never built anything bigger than a few inches long.
Victor began considering the Volfinity project for his group. He realized if they were to take it on, they’d have to let go of the proven product they were so successful at making. Taking on the project required a huge leap of faith from the small group of engineers. To succeed, they’d have to completely transform their approach.
“We ran the risk of failing, of losing all we had built within our group,” Victor said. “But we realized that it’s important that the team transform and take on higher value projects.”
Electrification of vehicles, energy storage and the increasing need for new battery technology was a trend Victor could see coming.
“Looking at the market and seeing that nobody is doing this,” he said, “to me that was a clear opportunity.”
The team could either take on the new project and risk failing or stick to what they already knew and risk becoming irrelevant in the future.
Victor said he lost a lot of sleep over the decision, but he trusted his team and knew they could overcome the challenge and build the solution.
That trust was mutual, and a key component of their eventual success. Jenny Zeng, chief engineer based in Chengdu, China, led the group tasked with ultimately manufacturing the connector once it was designed. She told Victor that as long as the team was together building, creating and learning, it didn’t matter what product they were working on.
“There’s nothing that stays forever,” Jenny said. “So, you have to take on transformation.”
The team agreed to take it on.
Their first Volfinity customer needed a connector about the size of a shoebox and capable of safely connecting several battery cells together. To meet the customer’s requirements, the team would need to design a large plastic tray, a flexible circuit with temperature sensors for each cell and an aluminum bus bar to connect it all together. As they began the design work, it quickly became clear how much they had to learn.
None of the suppliers they had previously worked with could make a plastic mold as big as they needed. They also didn’t have much knowledge about welding aluminum connectors to each battery cell. Molex had never done anything like that before. It became apparent to the team, this was one challenge after another.
“Nobody knew what to do,” Colynn said. “So, we learned together, we taught each other and we grew together.”
The challenges the team faced sometimes led to long hours and late nights. Fanny Wong, principal project engineer of the team, has been with Molex for more than 30 years. It’s her job to keep the team motivated and moving forward. During particularly tough stretches, Fanny would check in often – which sometimes included bringing everyone a good meal.
“Team spirit was very high,” Fanny said. “And this is how we conquered whichever barrier we were facing.”
She said success required a desire to always be learning and a willingness to move out of your comfort zone.
Jenny said when she first took on this new manufacturing challenge, she knew the product would need to be welded but didn’t know what tool or machine to use. When she learned what tool she needed, it still took a while to learn how to make it do what she wanted and even more time to make it do it well. After two years of hard work, the product finally reached the point of mass production.
“When we reached that point, the joy of my heart cannot be expressed in words,” Jenny said.
The first time she saw her product in a car on the road, she couldn’t help but get her phone out and take a picture.
The team learned a lot while designing and putting into production that first Volfinity battery connector. But it wouldn’t be the end of learning or challenges.
Building on their newly acquired skills and success, the team began working with a major automotive manufacturer in 2018 to develop a connector for a new car battery pack. While it was another exciting new opportunity, it meant once again increasing the scale and complexity of the project.
The team felt great when it came time to present the newly designed battery connector to the customer. They’d increased their knowledge and skills alongside this customer, developing a very strong partnership. They were confident in the robust product they developed. But the team lost the project. It was more expensive than the other solutions.
“It was really a painful lesson for all of us to learn,” Colynn said.
But it was another important turning point for the team. Even though everyone was disappointed, they supported each other and kept on going.
“I always tell myself, ‘It’s OK to fail.’ Nobody will always be successful in everything they do,” she said. “But when you fall down, get up and you’ll get stronger.”
They knew they could develop a safe, robust and reliable battery connector – now they would make it more cost effective for the customer. For a team that had gone from barely knowing the basics of how to weld to an individual battery cell, to producing a fully functioning connector for multiple battery cells in the span of a few short years, the new challenge wasn’t a setback as much as it was another step in their transformation journey.
The automotive manufacturer recognized the Molex team’s potential and capabilities. It was impressed by the state-of-the-art manufacturing and quality process that had been set up in Chengdu. Despite the outcome of their first project together, Molex is continuing to work with them to develop Volfinity connectors for battery cell projects in future vehicles.
The Molex team is also working with more new customers, including efforts to design and build battery packs for stationary long-term energy storage.
Never Stop Learning
It’s not been easy, but after seven years no one on the team regrets the decision they made to shift course toward designing connectors for an emerging technology.
Fanny attributes a lot of their success to the support the team received. She said throughout the process her supervisors and unit management team always supported and trusted the team to make the best decisions.
She says the process also required a massive collaboration effort between the design team in Singapore, the manufacturing group in Chengdu and from many people across several of Molex’s divisions.
Colynn said the whole process has helped her gain knowledge and confidence. She didn’t know much about batteries before, but now she confidently works with customers and their experts to design better battery solutions.
The entire team has taken to heart the principles of Market-Based Management® and seen how constantly seeking knowledge and transforming yourself to create more value for your customers can unlock mutually beneficial improvement.
“I have to keep learning every day,” Jenny said. “Even though we are seven years into it, and I’ve learned a lot, there’s still a lot more to learn.”