Sourcing Connectors in an Uncertain WorldFollow article
The last 12 months have shown us how fragile our global supply chains can be. At the start of the coronavirus pandemic, air travel was impacted as thousands of flights were cancelled. A significant proportion of air freight is carried in the hold of passenger aircraft, so when the volume of air travel reduced, so too did the overall capacity of the air freight industry. Even 12 months later, air travel has still not reached pre-pandemic levels and so freight providers have had to find alternative methods of delivering their products.
At the same time, as the coronavirus pandemic swept across Europe, we saw countries closing their borders to road traffic to prevent the spread of the disease. The scene of massed ranks of trucks stranded on either side of the English Channel was common in news reports during 2020 and presented a perfect example of how closing borders can affect global trade.
A single event with global repercussions
At the beginning of 2021, everyone was hoping for some light at the end of the tunnel, with an improved situation in terms of both health and global trade. And then, in March of 2021, we saw another example of the fragility of global supply chains as a large container ship blocked the Suez Canal for about a week. About 75% of all global trade travels by sea, and a large proportion of this must travel through a small number of chokepoints such as the Suez and Panama Canals. In these restricted waterways, a small incident can have huge repercussions.
The accident in the Suez saw shipping companies scramble to find alternative routes to bring their products to market. Even these efforts have produced further repercussions. Once the canal was re-opened, the backlog of ships released caused a surge of shipping to arrive at ports at the same time, ports that simply are unable to cope with that volume of traffic at one time.
The Impact on Electronics
The electronics industry is no stranger to turbulent times. The electronic supply chain frequently experiences shortages or extended lead times. This is sometimes caused by a huge spike in demand from a growth industry or a shortage of raw materials. Under these circumstances, component manufacturers extend their lead times, and customers – especially large customers – often respond by placing multiple orders, making the problem worse. This is the world of “allocation” – a word that has the power to make many professional buyers go pale with fear.
It is true that this phenomenon is more common in the world of semiconductors and passives. The connector market has not generally experienced the same problem, or at least not to the same extent. However, the effects of the supply chain issues over the last year have been felt across all industries.
In an uncertain market, it is the job of the buyer to find alternative sources for the components that their companies need. Some components present less of a challenge than others - a discrete component, especially things like passives, can often be replaced by a close equivalent from another supplier.
This is not always the case when looking at connectors. The vast majority of connectors work as part of a pair – a pin and socket, male and female or plug and receptacle. The exact name is immaterial, the important thing to remember is that connectors work as part of a system.
Connectors usually work in pairs. Here, the Versablade from Molex
The challenge arises when a buyer can find only one half of that pair. When customers are clamouring for delivery of orders, production are complaining about shortages and shareholders are growing nervous, the pressure on buyers to find a solution – any solution – can become overwhelming
The Pressure on Buyers
Under this pressure, it can be tempting to mix connectors from different manufacturers to solve a short-term problem. Under certain conditions, this is perfectly acceptable. Military connectors are manufactured to a common standard and are specifically designed to provide connectivity under these conditions. However, commercial connectors are not always quite so compatible. While some designs are unique, there is also a large number of products that look superficially similar, and this can lead to potentially dangerous combinations.
Connector manufacturers employ many different materials in the production of their products to achieve different results for a range of situations. However, no one material provides a solution for all applications. Customers need to understand the importance of choosing the correct material for the performance of their equipment. Mixing connectors from different manufacturers, the customer runs the risk of introducing two incompatible materials that can affect the function of their design.
In just one example, the use of high-temperature materials is critical in a range of high-power connectors. Consider a connector with an operating temperature of 105°C that is cross-mated with another rated at just 85°C. In the tough conditions that are found in many industrial applications, there is a real risk that high temperatures could exceed that of the lesser connector, causing damage as plastics become soft or even present the danger of fire.
Don't Give In to Temptation
The last 12 months have seen a significant change to the global supply picture. The air freight market is still trying to recover from the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. Countries around the world are still restricting travel across borders to prevent the spread of disease. When combined with the impact of unforeseen events such as closing on the Suez Canal in March 2021, the supply chain situation is still somewhat chaotic.
The temptation to source alternative products to get over short-term supply chain problems is very strong when there are so many stakeholders who are applying pressure to provide a solution. The unseen risks that arise from mixing connectors from different manufacturers - potential quality issues, faulty installations, and equipment failures - can be damaging to reputations. In the worst case, they may create serious safety concerns. Make sure you do not fall victim to the temptation of the easy solution.