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The changing world of high reliability interconnection

This time last year Smiths Group was celebrating 100 years as a listed company on the London Stock Exchange. It had begun life in Victorian London as a family jeweller and clock maker but over the intervening years has grown to become a major industrial operation employing over 23,000 people around the world.

The Smiths Group has been involved with a host of innovative technologies employed across a variety of sectors - the maiden transatlantic flight, the conquest of Everest, the development of ultrasound scanners and autopilots, and the first test-tube baby to name but a few, all used technologies developed by Smiths.

Speaking last year the company's Chief Executive Philip Bowman highlighted the company's achievements, "as a company we've created so much history, repeatedly transforming ourselves to both survive and prosper."

Smiths joined the Stock Exchange on the eve of the First World War and it is no coincidence that defence and aerospace have played a key role in its development.

A significant part of the group, and one of five divisions, is Smiths Connectors, a supplier of high reliability electrical interconnect solutions from highly integrated assemblies to micro-miniature connectors and spring probe contacts.

Leading its European sales operation is Giuseppe Lancella who, as Sales VP EMEA, is based in Genoa.

"Smiths Connectors comprises of three brands: Hypertac, Sabritec and IDI," he explains, "and our focus is on high reliability connectors and to support that we have developed a number of in-house capabilities that straddle design, development, manufacturing and testing."

For Smiths Connectors that focus on quality has required that they work closely with their customers.

"That relationship with the customer is an important one. Ours is based on providing excellent operational support, impressive manufacturing capabilities and what I describe as world class engineering capabilities as well as the ability to offer rapid prototyping services," Lancella suggests.

Smiths Connectors targets markets such as defence and aerospace, oil and gas and transport, in which reliability is a crucial requirement.

Space is proving to be a fast growing market for the company which has been involved in a number of projects including the successful test flight of NASA's Orion mission which could result in future manned flights to the moon and Mars.

Smiths Connectors' KA Series of PCB connectors, as well as its high-speed rugged D-Sub connector series, were deployed on-board Orion.

"Smiths Connectors' heritage of participation in space programs is a wide one andincludes products that have been used on the International Space Station, the Mars Science Laboratory Rover, 'Curiosity,' the Hubble Space Telescope and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter," says Lancella.

"But while our focus is on high reliability it is a market that is changing and pricing challenges are growing," he concedes. "It's a difficult market to be engaged in and we need to avoid the trap of competing solely on price. Pricing is an issue, though, and as the industry consolidates we're seeing that pressure intensifying."

That pressure is exacerbated by a defence industry in which competition is intense – Government's are cutting defence spending and cost as opposed to quality is becoming more of a priority for many. Lancella talks of the double challenge of coping with falling prices and lower volume sales.

"As suppliers we have to contend with calls for significant price cuts, double digit in some cases. And that is certainly challenging. We've seen some key clients miss out on large orders and that failure to win key contracts has resulted in order numbers falling away.

"As a result we need to be more creative and work in partnership across the entire supply chain. At Smiths we are able to offer lower design and qualifications costs but, as a result, we have to take on more responsibility, especially when it comes to addressing relevant specifications and requirements of equipment design."

Smiths Group's success over the last 150 years has been its ability to innovate and Smiths Connectors is no different.

"Ours is a collaborative approach that benefits everyone," he suggests. "We look to design and then refine our connectors before they are built. It requires an involved design process but I believe manufacturers can have a high degree of confidence in the connectors that we manufacture."

When it comes to product design Smiths is able to offer a wide and varied range of devices.

"The pressure on delivering innovative designs continues to grow, especially when it comes to the over-arching issue of miniaturisation," suggests Lancella.

"The pressure to reduce the size of our connectors is continuous, it never stops. I think it is true to say that the impact on materials and technology is significant and we are fast reaching certain mechanical limitations."

Two technologies, according to Lancella, that are helping to address market demand for smaller devices is the company's hyperboloid and spring probe designed connectors.

"Our hyperboloid connector from Hypertac has been designed for environments where reliability and safety are critical and we've seen considerable traction in markets like medical, military, aerospace, industrial, mass transit, test & measurement electronics.

"The contact sleeve is formed by hyperbolically arranged contact wires, which align themselves elastically as contact lines around the pin, providing a number of linear contact paths.

"In practical terms the smallest pin diameter is 0.3mm but there is no upper limit," according to Lancella.

The other technology from Smiths Connectors that is finding traction is its spring probe connectors.

"Our spring probes are compliant which makes them suitable for blind mate applications as they selfcorrect for x, y, z, rotational and angular misalignment of the target," Lancella explains. "This makes them a good choice for high density, board-to-board, battery contact and high frequency applications."

Author
Neil Tyler

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