The connector industry has experienced significant erosion of its talent base in recent decades. Because this has occurred bit by bit over a long period of time, it’s not immediately apparent how significantly the industry has been changed by the loss of knowledge and experience these people represent.
Talent Drain Causes
Among other factors, this insidious trend was precipitated in no small part by a response to the growth of Emerging World Economies (EWE). The general level of expertise in the US connector industry has declined because of many factors, and to date it may not have been offset by positive trends in other areas.
This talent drain of expertise and knowledgeable personnel is also due to:
- Redundancies resulting from business mergers and acquisitions
- General attrition from retirements, resignations, promotions, deaths
- Avoidance of specialized, low-volume production by connector OEMs
- Layoffs due to business slowdown, profit declines, EWE-driven cost pressures
- Outsourcing/off-shoring components, tooling, production, and designs
- Reorganizations due to shuffles, consolidations, heavier workloads
- Fewer “career” engineers and a lack of internal training programs
Notable job titles and functions that have declined include OEM component engineers, who are responsible for (and most knowledgeable about) selecting and specifying connectors and related parts. Some connector companies continue to dismiss technical experts in particular fields — certainly the tool-and-die-making trade has taken a hit, but so have technical personnel in customer service; designers; electromechanical simulation analysts; R&D and development engineers; tooling and application experts; and those managing such personnel.
The trend has not been linear or one-directional, however. Certain large distributors have added connector application expertise, for example. Suppliers to the connector industry (who continue to grow by acquisition) are developing a higher degree of internal expertise in their particular areas. Much product information is now readily available on the Internet. In addition, increasing numbers of companies believe they can apply standard connectors to their needs, or even design their own specialized, application-specific connectors. However, those who do so, without a basic understanding of key connector attributes, often end up with a sub-optimal solution.
The Need to Understand Fundamentals
In the early days of the EWE, their industrial bases began with what could be described as a low-cost, “me-too” strategy, which describes it in a favorable light. When viewed pragmatically, however, many products, tooling, and related items were copied, pirated, reverse-engineered, or simply produced by the lowest-cost method, without the companies ever having acquired the requisite underlying expertise.
Without developing a fundamental understanding — of connector design principles, of a myriad of specialized techniques, of what not to do, of what can go wrong under certain conditions — the growth of the EWE connector industry and attendant supply base has resulted in a net deficit of connector talent. This is both because of the drain in the US, and also because EWEs have not filled the gap, due to their strategic choices.
The risk of the connector industry “losing the recipe” — basically abandoning the fundamentals of good connector design, by choice or by accident — is very great and is likely already underway. The amount of technical content applied behind the scenes — basically the engineering, know-how, and technological expertise inherent in the end product — has been generally reduced, when viewed on the basis of technology content per connector.
Consumer and Industrial Market Risks
Perhaps, over time, EWEs will acquire or develop independent connector expertise. In the meantime, and on a related front, there is a higher risk of consumer and industrial product functionality problems stemming from reduced connector quality, such as shorter lifespans, higher incidence of manufacturing process issues, rapid product performance degradation, increased internal rejects, etc.
Time will tell how many (and what type of) issues develop; the countertrend of shorter and shorter product life cycles tends to mask these effects. Since connectors are an integral part of a wide variety of products, the ultimate impact of this expertise decline will likely be widely felt.
All this results in an abundance of “cheaper” products (not just lower-cost but those suffering decreased technical integrity as well), combined with fewer crafts-persons, engineers, and technologists in the connector industry, which now offers fewer opportunities for respectable, good-paying career opportunities. The connector industry is negatively impacted, and so is society as a whole.
By Ron Locati, Principal Consultant, APEX Electrical Interconnection Consultants
Ron Locati of APEX Electronics Interconnection Consultants, has 35 years of connector industry experience, primarily in engineering and R&D. He led both technical and marketing efforts at AMP, was director of engineering at Augat-LRC Electronics/Thomas & Betts, and served as vice president of product development at Stewart Connectors (Insilco). His experience spans wire-applied, board-mounted, military avionics, RF, cable TV, coax, fiber optic, telco/data, power, medical, and other connector products. Ron has a B.S. in mechanical engineering, completed graduate courses toward an MBA, and holds 32 patents.