This industry is comprised of manufacturers of electronic connectors, e.g. coaxial, cylindrical, rack and panel, and printed circuit connectors. Establishments primarily engaged in manufacturing electrical connectors are classified in SIC 3643: Current-Carrying Wiring Devices; those manufacturing electronic capacitors are classified in SIC 3675: Electronic Capacitors; and those manufacturing electronic coils, transformers, and other inductors are classified in SIC 3677: Electronic Coils, Transformers, and Other Inductors.
334417 (Electronic Connector Manufacturing)
The health of the electronic connectors industry is tied to that of electronic equipment and other finished-product (e.g., automobile) manufacturers. A cutback in military spending and substantial reductions in the price of personal computers (PCs) has reduced the number of connector manufacturers through closures and mergers. The most successful companies, such as AMP Inc. and Molex, have traditionally invested heavily in research and development, effectively differentiating their products in a competitive environment. After declining for three consecutive years, total industry shipments in 2000 rose to $6.15 billion.
Makers of electronic connectors and other passive electronic components must rely on manufacturers of finished products to maintain favorable prices and provide a market for their goods. As is the case in most components industries, military markets generally require the most advanced products, which are usually the most expensive. When an industry such as the PC industry slows or is forced to reduce its prices (the case worldwide in the late 1980s and early 1990s) or when PC prices permanently drop from the pressure of intense competition (as was the case during the mid-1990s), connector manufacturers have difficulty maintaining profits.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the connector industry was overcrowded, with approximately 800 manufacturers worldwide. However, consolidations and mergers considerably reduced the number of players in the United States as the 1990s came to a close. According to Electronic Business the number of connector manufacturers dwindled to an estimated 347 establishments in 1997. A total of 37,330 workers were employed in the manufacture of electronic connectors, about 75 percent of whom were classified as "direct production workers."
The beginnings of the electronic connectors industry can be traced to products such as the solderless electrical connectors AMP Inc. manufactured for use in aircraft and boats in the 1940s, and the introduction of the printed wiring board in 1936 by Dr. Paul Eisner. The increased use of electronic components, particularly in military applications in the 1980s, was ironically fore-shadowed by growth in demand for electrical components in military ships and aircraft during World War II. At the end of the War, contract terminations eliminated many shops. However, the postwar explosion of the semiconductor-related industries eventually made the connectors field more attractive, so that by the early 1990s, the number of connector manufacturers had risen to approximately 800.
Challenging operational environments of industry and the military continued to provide a demand for specialized connectors. In 1991, Ocean Design Inc. introduced an oil-filled, pressurized connector for military and petroleum industry use underseas and in damp conditions. This connector could be mated underwater without shutting off power. The design relied on a thin layer of a specially engineered thermoplastic to strengthen its protective epoxy layer. Another specialized connector with military applications was the Beta Flex circuit board connector. This connector was developed to meet a need for very fast data transmission in the high vibration environment of avionics. At the core of this design was a nickel-titanium memory alloy. Pave Technology Co. introduced a radiation-resistant "push-through" connector, allowing workers to replace its connection without entering a sealed chamber.
Not content with the connector's status as the weak link in the signal chain, coaxial connector-and-cable assemblies were developed in which the connectors as well as the cable were shielded, preventing signal loss of as much as 30 percent. In addition, such connector assemblies featured a four-beam contact, providing more surface area than the standard two-beam contact. In 1992 AMP Inc. introduced another important innovation within the industry, a hybrid called the Active Eurocard Connector. It was a high speed connector that featured a small printed circuit board on which microchips could be placed, freeing motherboard space. The design was said to allow space to be utilized more efficiently and to dramatically increase bus speed. Highly controlled impedance was a feature of all such high-density connectors.
Providing standards for the vast number of new technologies remained a problem going into the mid-1990s, although some manufacturers preferred proprietary standards, forcing customers to purchase many different components from one source. Concurrently, with the push for proprietary standards, a trend developed in which suppliers worked closely with clientele to develop customized connectors; the result accounted for somewhat higher profit margins but only in specialized applications (such as for military use). Increased consumer demand for inexpensive products that utilized electronic connectors and increased competition among producers of electronic connectors continued to whittle down the number of manufacturers within the industry.
A promising long-term trend in the late 1990s was the proliferation of electronics in such varied industries as industrial connector applications in data communications, commercial aircraft, medical technology, automobiles, and telecommunications. Mobile phones also offered a greatly expanding market potential. However, industry shipments declined consistently throughout the 1990s, dropping from $5.5 billion in 1997 to $5.3 billion in 1998 and to $5.1 billion in 1999. It was not until 2000 that the value of shipments began to climb, reaching $6.15 billion. Employment in 2000 totaled 33,918 workers, down from 39,358 in 1998. Production workers—who totaled 25,518 in 2000, compared to 27,586 in 1998—earned an average hourly wage of $14.20.
The worldwide connector industry had been dominated by AMP Inc. of Harrisburg, Pa., with Thomas and Betts Corp. a distant second. Notable competitors included Molex Inc., Amphenol Corp., and Berg Electronics Corp. AMP had sales of $5.2 billion in the mid-1990s, and a market-share of about 18 percent. The company employed 40,000 workers in 43 countries.
AMP, originally known as Aircraft Marine Products, was founded by Uncas A. Whitaker in 1941. Initially the domestic leader in the U.S. electrical connector industry, AMP succumbed by the end of the century in a merger with a larger, international manufacturing concern, Tyco International Ltd. Emblematic of trends in the ever increasing globalization of the market for electronic connectors, AMP was expected to greatly increase market share of (the parent) Tyco's electrical and electronic components group. Tyco's justification for the merger reflected a growing intersect of technologies within electronic components, particularly in communications technologies; the expectation was that AMP's fiber optics and backplane assembly technologies would aptly mesh with connector technology to increase Tyco's competitiveness in marketing fiber optic communications cable, precision printed circuit boards, and backplanes.
In 1998, imports of electronic connectors were valued at over $1.3 billion, well over double the imports in 1993. Over the same time frame, the value of overseas shipments almost tripled to over $1.1 billion in 1998. Interestingly, the primary export markets for U.S.-made electronic connectors remained in the North American hemisphere and accounted for almost half of total exports. Mexico ($306 million) and Canada ($229 million) were leading importers. Most of the rest of exports went to Singapore, the United Kingdom, and Germany, which tripled their consumption over a scant 6 years (1992 to 1998). However, the once-largest overseas importer, Japan, barely doubled shipments of electronic connectors during the same time frame.
About one-third of electronic connectors sold in the United States are printed circuit boards. Cylindrical, rack and panel, planar hermetic sealed, and fiber optic connectors divide the rest of the electronic connector market, with fiber optic connectors showing a strong potential for growth. The demand for increasing miniaturization will drive technological advances in the future. Specialized military and commercial applications will also fuel research.
Citing the failure of solder joints under fatigue as a causative factor in avionics failures, Westinghouse introduced Solder Free Interconnects, secured by cantilever spring clips, and Lockheed Sanders introduced folding printed circuit boards with flexible printed wiring. Although some aspects of the emerging technology made manufacturing less labor-intensive, others, particularly the small size of the components, required heavy investments in specialized machines able to handle the process.
The data communications market remained one of the largest users of electronic connectors during the 1990s. In particular, private networks in commercial buildings accounted for a significant increase in use of multimode fiber-optic connectors. In an effort to address difficulties during installation of extensive networks (which accounted for a significant amount of the expense when using fiber-optics), traditional epoxy and hot-melt connectors were supplanted by crimp-style connectors. Moreover, at the close of the decade, manufacturers were investigating the possibility of using (nonglass) plastic and copper fibers to further reduce cost.
Market demand, especially over local area networks (LAN), required connection bandwidth for high-speed serial data connectors in such applications. In fact, while demand for high-speed connectors required 3.2 billion leads/contacts in 1997, projections (that year) estimated an almost nine-fold increase to 27 billion leads/contacts by 2002. Computer hardware (e.g., hardware for graphic workstations, servers, wireless interfaces, telecom hubs, and military programs) had been engineered to reach speeds of 500 to 800 MHz, pulse rise times from 50 to 120 picoseconds, and transmission speeds greater than 580 Mbits per second. Yet, because over shorter distances (no greater than 30 meters) the benefits of fiber optics were not significantly appreciable, connector technology continued to focus on developing technologies that were compatible with copper fiber channel cabling.
The drive for miniaturization was also fueled by the laptop computer industry, which required in 1994 high density interconnections for such next-generation components as miniaturized memory cards and 1.8-inch disk drives, and connectors for linking the laptops with networks and desk-based PCs. Two-millimeter to 0/8-millimeter connectors were developed for use in the smallest of computers and electronic devices, such as pagers. However, newer designs were required as applications for electronic components demanded smaller, conveniently sized and weighted apparatus. Traditional manufacturing processes were based in traditional engineering schemes that utilized mated pairs (a receptacle and plug). Newer designs, first intended for use in the telecommunications handset market, featured connectors that did not require a receptacle.
Another concern, as electronic devices grew increasingly smaller, was the drain on available power attributable to electronic connectors. Resistance factors in connectors and attendant power consumption accounted for approximately 10 percent of power usage in small devices such as pocket electronic personal organizers. However, as electronic devices became smaller, were more powerful, and used miniaturized batteries, such power drain became unacceptable.
By 1997, standard-contact connectors had resistance of about 3 ohms; more costly gold contacts were about 1 ohm. Future applications, however, demanded connector resistance in the range of micro ohms. In an effort to meet demand for low-cost, miniature, low-resistance connectors, engineers began to create designs that used new materials such as flowable polymers that potentially allowed for wall thicknesses of 0.005 inch. Designers could put mating contacts on the thin-cut edges instead of wider, stamped sides of electronic components. In this manner, the width of connector pins was reduced and an attendant drop in resistance was achieved.
Another concern brought on by miniaturization of electronic devices was the need to reduce the number of pins required to make connectors but, at the same time, increase the flow of data that would go through those connectors. As the twentieth century ended, engineers conceived interconnection designs, called Micro Electro Mechanical Systems (MEMS), which utilized a system similar to the one used in integrated circuit fabrication. MEMS devices enabled inclusion of microminiature motors, pumps, switches, actuators, sensors, and mirrors by exploiting the mechanical and electrical properties of silicon. Thus, connectors and circuitry would be integrated onto a single chip.
In addition to MEMS-based design, more radical research and development was underway before the twenty-first century began. Rather than basing technology on silicon, engineers and scientists began to explore the possibilities presented by carbon-based materials. This would make possible electronic and mechanical components on a molecular scale. Such designs depended on the effective development of a corm of carbon comprised of 60 atoms arranged in a spherical lattice-work and configured in hexagonal faces. Researchers thought that the molecular structure known as "fullerene" had mechanical properties similar to those that MEMS made possible but on an infinitesimally smaller magnitude.
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