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The more things change....

01 August 2015

Founded in 1956 as the Aviation Electrical and Radio Company, Aerco has always viewed the military and aerospace industries as prime target markets. This remains true today as Alec Sluce reports.

In common with many sectors, the mil/aero market poses a special challenge to both manufacturer and distributor. Apart from the obvious quality and reliability issues that require suppliers to conform to a quality system such as AS9100 before they can even make the supplier list, other factors put pressure on manufacturers and distributors serving the industry.
A long and complex development programme is likely to be followed by a comparatively low volume production run that may extend over many years, sometimes decades.  A supplier is therefore required to provide state-of-the-art products and be prepared to supply and support those components for up to 25 years.

Above all, the industry has a well-established route to market that includes aircraft manufacturers, assemblers, sub-contractors, component manufacturers and distributors and it is vital that any company working in the industry has a clear understanding of how the supply chain works and their role within it.

Changing requirements
The general perception of the industry is the predominant use of traditional circular connectors such as Mil-C 5015, Mil-C-26482 and M83723, and although these are still very popular the past decade has seen many changes.

There has been a continuous demand for higher power connectors coupled with higher contact density and an on-going requirement to reduce size and weight. This, combined with the need for multi-purpose connectors that carry power, signal, high-speed contacts, RF and Ethernet within a single connector, has led to the evolvement of a host of new products.

To achieve these, at times, conflicting design targets, new methods and materials have been used.  In some applications new composite materials are being introduced and fibre optic cables are continuing to challenge traditional copper wire. There has also been more PCB-based connectors developed and many traditional products have been modified to meet these new demands while retaining the quality and reliability of the original designs.

Products such as the HPH connectors from Hypertac have double the contact density of similar products of just a few years ago and are designed to meet the needs of applications where environmental immunity and connection reliability are of paramount importance.

Also with size and weight in mind, Hypertac offers the HDLP range of low-profile surface-mount PCB connectors designed for all types of airborne applications while we have seen from AB Connectors the introduction of MABAC, a miniature version of the traditional D38999 circular connector.

New materials
There is now a wider acceptance of composite materials for airborne applications that reflects the growth in their use in the general electronics industry. Such material is no longer considered a cheap alternative to metal and plays a vital role in applications where weight is critical.

Most high-performance plastics and composite materials will resist common solvents and all but the highest temperatures and, because they can be processed at lower temperatures than most metals, are easier to form into complex geometries.

With the growing demand for high data rates, the debate of copper versus fibre is as relevant as ever.  Higher data rates mean shorter transmission distances for copper cables and higher contact densities increase the need for shielding making cables bigger and heavier.

Fibre optic cables are smaller, lighter, immune to electrical noise and have longer transmission distances than copper, all of which are relevant for some applications in the mil/aerospace industry.  However, there is little doubt that copper and fibre will continue to co-exist for the foreseeable future.

As a distributor, Aerco views it as important that it is able to react to changing requirements; for example, it provides one customer with a complete interface assembly that converts standard wire to fibre optic for distributing signals throughout an aircraft.
Designers now demand the highest possible degree of design flexibility and to this end several connector manufacturers are now designing modular connector assemblies where the same components can be used to create multiple configurations. The modular, multi-function connectors from Hypertac are typical examples.

A changing relationship
The structure of the mil/aerospace industry has shifted over recent years, as has the relationship between manufacturers, distributors and customers.  Manufacturers now tend to outsource production with in-house activities being more assembly based, while customers place increasing importance on vendor reduction programmes and minimising stockholdings.

This means that distributors are expected to provide a wider range of products on shorter lead-times while having the financial strength to forward order and hold up to three years of stock that can be delivered at short notice. 

Most successful distributors also now appreciate the importance of adding value and it is commonplace for distributors to provide complete sub-assemblies and fully populated PCBs. Connector assembly is another area that can be of significant benefit to both manufacturers and customers. Aerco assembles connectors for Hypertac, AB Connectors and Deutsch to support both new designs and products moving towards the end of their life cycle.

A good example is the recent announcement by Aerco that it is to extend its assembly capability to include the rectangular, high-density PCB range of Hypertac HPH connectors. These high reliability, vibration-proof connectors use the well-proven Hyperboloid socket contact design, ensuring low insertion and separation forces, low contact resistance and high current and voltage ratings.

Aerco plans to supply versions with up to 202 contacts, with options for straight and 90° PCB contacts with a wide range of mating guide styles on a two-week lead-time with no minimum order quantities. The high density is achieved with 4A rated contacts that are 0.6mm diameter set on a staggered pitch of 1.905mm.

The distributor's ability to supply a wide range of connectors on short delivery times allows the connector manufacturer to concentrate on strategic business rather than diverting resource into costly and time consuming small-build projects.
There are many challenges to be faced over the coming years. Customer demands will continue to challenge designers and manufacturers, and in order to stay competitive component manufacturers and their distributors will have to react to these changes quickly and confidently.

The industry has a mature and well-established supply chain but it would be wrong to consider that it is set in stone. Market forces continue to create subtle changes in the balance between the key elements of this chain from the component manufacturers through to the aircraft manufacturers.

As a distributor Aerco knows it has to react to the changing demands of its suppliers and customers, and the necessity to keep up to date with product changes and the subtle restructuring of an ever more complex industry. 

Alec Sluce is Aerco's connector product manager

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