What is the Conductor? [Cable 101]

What is the Conductor? [Cable 101]

13 Nov 20174 min readMike Anderson
a copper wire coil a copper wire coil

Whether designing a disposable medical device, mass-producing a consumer charging cable or developing a wire harness for a piece of capital equipment, careful detail must be paid to connect the different components. This coming-together is most typically accomplished using some version of wire. Unbeknownst to the majority of the general public, this much design and engineering that goes into each of these types of wire. At the core of a wire is the conductor, the question is, do you need one, two, 8, or even more conductors in your wire to make your product function?

Before we discuss what the “Conductor” is, let establish the very basic anatomy of a wire. Within a “simple” wire you have, moving from inside to outside;

  1. Conductor
  2. Insulation
  3. Shield
  4. Jacket

What is a “Conductor”?

Whether in a powering a small device or the powerlines providing electricity to an entire city, a conductor is the material that allows the free flow of electric current. In the case of the electrical circuit system, “conductor” specifically refers to the piece that transports the electrical current from the source to its load.

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What is a conductor made of?

When an electrical charge is applied, metals provide the best conductive properties. This is the reason why metals are the conductor of choice in electric wires. Although we are all used to seeing copper as the most used conductor, the best metallic conductor is actually silver. But because of outrageous sticker price, copper is the most often used. Other metals—such as aluminum, gold, steel and brass—are also conductors, but they’re not considered to be as effective as copper and silver and using these metals may present other complications.

How do I decide on the size of the conductor wire?

Base conductor wires range from a stand or wire that is smaller than a human hair to 0000. American wire gauge* (AWG) is a standardized system for wire gauging that spells out the diameters of round, solid, nonferrous, electrically conductive wire. So, finding a conductor wire for your product depends on how big or small you want it to be, coupled with the product or device power requirements.

How many conductors do I need in my wire?

We wish we could tell you, but answering this would be like looking into a crystal ball and instantaneously making ATL a unicorn, but we don’t know your business—and we don’t have a crystal ball, unfortunately. It really all depends on what you need to device or product to do.

A common wire most of us are aware of is the wires running through our homes. This wire has three conductors: Hot, Neutral and Ground. Wires being produced today range from one conductor to literally hundreds of conductors.


As an example, let’s discuss the anatomy of a USB 3.0 Cable. The construction of this cable includes the following conductors:

  • 2 power conductors that range from 20 – 28 AWG
  • 1 set of unshielded twisted pair that range from 28-34 AWG
  • 2 sets of shielded twisted pairs that range from 26-34 AWG
  • 1 drain wire

A total of nine conductors are needed to produce a USB cable (we would commonly describe this cable as 8 conductors and a drain wire, even though the drain wire is technically a conductor as well). Any device may need less or it may need significantly more—it is all down to what you need the connector to do.

We have only merely scratched the surface of the components of wire. This is the first in a series of four that breaks down the components of wire and what we, at ATL, need to build you the best connector for your application.


Next blog post in the series: Insulation

* W&M Wire Gauge, US Steel Wire Gauge and Music Wire Gauge are different systems