Connector issues: when supply chains break

Sager Electronics’ director, supplier marketing and product management, David Smith

Sager Electronics’ director, supplier marketing and product management, David Smith, explores solutions to connector supply chain bottlenecks, including 3D printing services

Electronic systems designs pose many challenges and the impact of the recent raw material shortages and supply chain disruptions haven’t helped. Supply chain issues can haunt a product even after the initial design and prototype are complete, and the current interruptions are impacting availability from specialty products to commodity parts alike.

While many types of connectors are considered commodities and the interchangeable nature of the product due to uniformity in form, fit and function lends itself to second sourcing, interconnect devices are no exception to the current challenges. Finding alternatives isn’t always a simple or easy solution given certification and approvals, specific design requirements and material flexibility. Additionally, extending lead times—and in some instances, no defined lead times at all—leaves purchasing and design engineers scrambling to find the right connector for their design.

Lead times on just about everything are extending, even to the point of being unable to deliver. In the past, though rare, the Force Majeure clause would kick in, where both parties are free from liability and obligation when extraordinary events occur beyond anyone’s control. Today, though, it is commonly employed as parts shortages make deliveries impossible and purchasing faces the unenviable task of procuring materials that just aren’t available. Not only are suppliers listing longer lead times, but in many cases, they are listing ‘no possible dates’, meaning they can’t tell when parts will ever be in the pipeline.

To make matters worse, counterfeit parts using inferior materials can suddenly appear to come to the rescue. This option should always be avoided because poor quality can affect performance and important product warrantees may be invalid. This is especially true in critical applications like medical devices, radar or equipment in hazardous environments, where these inferiorities can be fatal.

Searching for a connector alternative requires considering both halves of the specification to provide the greatest flexibility while ensuring interminability. OEMs need to work closely with their sources as cables must mate to whichever receptacle is used on the PCB or chassis.  This is all the more critical if the application requires extensive certification and approval processes. For example, military and medical designs cannot easily substitute parts without going through costly and lengthy recertification. This is also true if working with a contract manufacturer: they may offer alternative sources, but those recommendations must also be verified for form and fit. This can halt entire product lines until validations and paperwork are in place.

Designers can either choose identical sources or place redundant footprints on the PCB. This way, the available part is used at the alternate location, although this may present challenges for the mechanical case or enclosures, especially for products that must adhere to pressure and water-tight specifications. Along this same approach, many OEMs are taking the extra time when working on a new design to ensure there are at least two sources for the connector. Where before it wasn’t critical, the extra time on the front end can help avoid delivery interruptions down the road.

In a critical line down situation, design engineers may need to rethink their requirements. For instance, is there flexibility with color? Choosing between different housing colors, using a non-latching/locking option when the latching option is specified, or using un-shrouded headers in place of shrouded headers may make the difference. Is there flexibility with contact metals? Using tin plating versus gold plating on the terminals or a standard plastic versus 94V-0 rated plastic may be an option, while adding one’s own metallic adhesive shielded shroud may eliminate the metal hood constraint.

Another long-term solution that piggybacks onto the services offered by distribution is to use 3D printers to make approved connectors in conjunction with the manufacturer. If material science can offer printer plastics, metals and pins, a well-positioned distributor can fill the void.

The sooner options are reviewed with the OEM’s engineering team the better. Take extra time to work closely with suppliers and distribution when working on a new design. Strategic partnerships with distributors and tapping into value-added services can better assure scheduled shipments while avoiding future delivery interruptions and reducing costs for manufacturers.