30 Years a GeekFollow article
I do not normally write this kind of thing. It shouldn’t really matter to anyone how long I’ve been doing this, but today feels a little bit different. On this day 30 years ago, I started my first proper job in the connectors industry.
In thinking about this milestone, I have been wondering about what has changed and what has stayed the same. I have written before about how the connector industry is usually driven by evolution rather than revolution. Unlike other areas of electronics, brand-new concepts in the connector world are rare.
LEMO connectors stand the test of time
In fact, the opposite is true. Many manufacturers still produce connectors that are decades old. Swiss manufacturer LEMO still makes the original S series that launched their connector range 64 years ago. It won't surprise anyone who has met me to learn that I know the part number (it is FFA.1S.275, in case you're interested). The MIL-DTL-38999, still one of the most popular circular connector series used in the defence and aerospace markets, is nearly 50 years old.
It is therefore hard to find connectors that have disappeared from the market. Over the years, we have heard many predictions about the demise of one product or another, only for them remain in production even today – the ever-popular D-sub connector was first introduced in the year that Elvis recorded Jailhouse Rock.
There are a few technologies that have not stood the test of time. The use of wire-wrap terminations for panel connectors has almost completely disappeared, and other products have faded from view. When I first started working in the industry, we sold thousands of the V.35 standard every year. The V.35 is a large and blocky panel connector that was widely used in the telecoms industry. You can still buy them– the connector industry rarely gets rid of anything – but I’d be very surprised if anyone is using them for anything other than fixing old and failing equipment.
V.35 Connectors. You don't see many of these any more...
While we rarely lose technologies, we have certainly lost some names from the industry. Names like Robinson Nugent, FCI and Augat have vanished, usually swallowed up by larger companies as part of an acquisition. Others remain only as a division or a brand name of one of the global giants of the connector market.
While the technology of connectors changes slowly, what has constantly amazed me is the ingenuity of customers to use connectors in ways for which they were never designed. There was a customer who used expensive autosport connectors as door handles. There was another customer who would deploy their fragile fibre optic cables by plugging one end in, placing the cable reel on the back of a quad bike and then driving off across the field. I have even watched a highly qualified scientist use connectors to gain access to a large installation as if they were handholds on a climbing wall. The fact that these connectors could even barely function after this kind of abuse is a testament to the engineering skill of the people who made them.
Imagine doing this in a white lab coat. Using connectors.
In my opinion, how a connector is made represents the most interesting aspect of this whole industry. Even in 2021, the manufacture of connectors involves a lot of skilled manual labour, and to watch these experts at work is both fascinating and humbling. In contrast, some manufacturers have embraced the latest technologies.
To visit the most modern manufacturing facility is a masterclass in the implementation of Industry 4.0 and smart factory innovation. To see a fully automated plating facility in action is poetry in motion. I can personally speak about HARTING, Samtec and Rosenberger as theirs are the factories that have amazed me recently, but the same will be true of manufacturers the world over.
And so, even after three decades in the same industry, I still feel like a kid in a sweet shop. The connectors themselves, the ways in which they are made and the myriad applications in which they are employed all present me with new and exciting things to learn.
I like it here. I think I’ll stay.