The connector market is often described as evolutionary — rather than revolutionary — in its technology advancements, but that doesn’t mean the sector is immune to the electronics industry’s wild swings. The challenges and problems connector manufacturers and design engineers must deal with include the same hurdles the rest of the market faces. Problems as varied as the effects of globalization, production outsourcing (offshoring and, more recently, re-shoring), tighter environmental rules and regulations (i.e. REACH, RoHS/WEEE), downward pricing constraints, and continuing shifts in customer requirements for differentiation and miniaturization aren’t just the concerns of semiconductor vendors.
While these matters constitute a mere sampling of challenges all players in the electronics manufacturing industry struggle with each day, for connector suppliers there’s the additional problem of ensuring their products make it from the design stage all the way to final production. For design engineers, the connector often isn’t the most important component on a board but for the connector supplier a design win is a significant achievement that could lead to a huge volume sale.
However, the design win may not translate into the expected sales for the connector supplier if the component can be easily swapped with a cheaper alternative. In today’s market, both the connector supplier and the design engineer — if the selected connector is considered an integral part of the product — must remain engaged with other players in the supply chain (components engineer and purchasing) to ensure the chosen components make it through to production.
The reality is there are no guarantees that the actual connector specified by the design engineer will make it through to the finished product. A design engineer may prefer a particular connector and include it in a design, but this doesn’t guarantee that specific component will end up in the final product. Depending upon cost and volume availability, as well as OEM preferences or relationships with particular suppliers, the design engineer’s influence over the parts selection can be severely curtailed in the manufacturing process.
Two other players in the manufacturing process — the components engineer and purchasing professionals — can sway the choice of connectors with their own preferences and criteria. This could result in a different component being swapped for the original choice, opening the door to manufacturing snafus that the engineer might need to help resolve. In other words, the design engineer’s job, even in a market as straightforward as connectors, is not done with the completion of the product design, but can often extend throughout the entire manufacturing process.
“The global supply chain continues to increase in complexity, and the line between manufacturing and design is blurring,” said Ashis Bhattacharya, vice president, global strategy marketing and business development, sensing and control, in the Automation and Control Solutions division of Honeywell. “The limits are being pushed in innovation but the operating environments are also complex because customers require longer support even as they do more with less.”
Bhattacharya is on to something that has been quietly developing in the electronics manufacturing space for years, but now snags design engineers in sectors, like connectors, that were once considered among the least complicated segments of the industry. A few years ago, the International Electronics Manufacturing Initiative (iNEMI), a consortium of electronics OEMs, suppliers, associations, government agencies, and universities, identified certain constraints it believed would impact the connector market as a whole, as well as its constituent players, including suppliers, distributors, and OEM/EMS provider customers. These factors include the following:
- Design for manufacturing/assembly
- Global logistics/supply chain
- Environmental regulations
- Materials and molding
- Mechanical/electrical design
- Automation and re-automation in developing countries
- Manufacturing automation vs. short, unpredictable life cycles
Here are the key conclusions iNEMI reached:
- Connector design and manufacturing requires these core capabilities. Rarely do key industry design initiatives — usually backed by major OEMs — stray from the comfort zones promulgated by these technologies.
- Connector manufacturers are squeezed between the constant pressure to reduce costs and the need to invest in plants and equipment. The trend has been toward less automation, not more, for ROI considerations. As labor costs rise, this issue will become significant.
Old Problem, New Solution
The above factors were identified five years ago, and since then, they’ve only grown in importance. In fact, recent trends in manufacturing, including the return of some production work to the United States, and intensified OEM focus on complex markets such as automation, energy, lighting, medical, and industrial, have increased the pressure on design engineers specifying connectors. All these industry segments require more handholding by all professionals involved in product design and manufacturing, which means engineers must remain closely aligned with the production environment and be ready to steer products through the manufacturing process.
“Lighting OEMs need connectors, and design engineers are the people we go to for some of our differentiated products,” said Tom Anderson, product manager at AVX. “We’ve got 25-plus niche products and some of these are targeted at new markets.”
The challenge companies like AVX face is that getting the design engineer onboard often isn’t enough to clinch volume sales. With low-cost alternatives emerging from China, connector suppliers are seeking new ways to ensure their design will make it through to actual production. One strategy for achieving this, Anderson said, is to focus on proprietary connectors that cannot be easily swapped out for cheaper alternatives. Products like this help manufacturers achieve two distinct but related goals: technology innovation and price reduction.
“Technology innovation keeps the design engineer’s specs on the board,” Anderson said. “We know our customers would like to reduce cost and we help them achieve this goal by offering connector products that are innovative and yet cost-competitive.”
In North America, engineers are also realizing that connector specs are more likely to stay on the board if designed into products aimed at highly demanding industry segments where reliability is of greater importance than cost. For instance, connectors designed into consumer electronics devices are more likely to be replaced with low-cost alternatives, while those intended for highly regulated segments like aeronautics and medical are more likely to prevail in their original design. Also, some industry segments have such stringent performance requirements that connector pricing is a secondary factor. These include segments like automotive, military, and industrial, where products are expected to remain on the market for 10 or more years. These are sectors where the customer “cannot sacrifice reliability,” for pricing, said Anderson. “The product must work no matter what and failure is incomprehensible.”
Other companies are pursuing that strategy. Vishay Intertechnology also has remained competitive in the face of the “China price pressure” by courting design engineers in markets where cost is of lower importance, said David Valletta, executive VP, sales, at the Malvern, Pennsylvania-based company. Vishay sees demand-creation — an area where design engineers excel as key players — as one of its most effective tools for growth. “We are looking for incremental growth through demand creation,” Valletta said. “It’s not enough to just grab market share from competitors, and that’s why we are in industrial, high-reliability, and medical sectors.”
That differentiation, through technology innovation, market segmentation, and continuous improvement, is what everyone recommends as best practices for electronics manufacturers, design engineers, and suppliers. It’s not any different for the connector market.