Electronic Design

Demand More From Your Switch Suppliers And Reap Savings

Is your company looking to shorten design cycles and bring products to market faster? Are you looking to reduce supply chains and the number of suppliers you deal with? Have you considered offloading portions of your product design, freeing up your designers to focus on the more critical aspects of creating new products?

It’s very common for the user interface to your product to include a self-contained sub-assembly or module that plugs into a larger assembly or the end product itself. Such a sub-assembly often consists of a printed-circuit board (PCB) or lead frame that includes an electromechanical switch or sensor, complementary electronics, possibly a source of illumination, and a means of connection, all mounting within a package that ties into the end product.

Developing such an assembly requires evaluating and quoting dozens of vendors and then narrowing them down to the final half dozen. Add in the prototyping, development, and testing phases, and design teams quickly slow down with something as simple as finding the switch interface.

These challenges no longer have to be the concern of the original equipment manufacturer (OEM). Switch manufacturers today have had to adapt and expand capabilities and resources that are of value and benefit to traditional OEM customers on a worldwide level, through global manufacturing, design, and sales support.

Cars and Phones and More
Switch manufacturers are in the unique position of having seen their products integrated into all types of electronics, in some cases for 40 to 50 years. They know what makes for a successful integration and have also seen the designs that have failed. The best switch companies regard themselves as experts at providing their customers with not just the components, but also the packaged solutions.

For example, many automobile manufacturers are simplifying their automatic shifters to reduce component count and vehicle weight while providing drivers a cleaner, more contemporary look. To do so, shift modules are becoming more electronic in makeup. Some companies originally developed an electromechanical switch for this application and then took it further by developing the module for simple integration into the same application for a number of automobiles.

Because the costliest component in this bill of materials was the switch, automotive manufacturers looked for a vendor who not only controlled the switching solution, but also provided added value in terms of designing the solution to best fit the application, i.e., the ability to integrate the same solution from platform to platform, easily integrating it into each vehicle.

Meanwhile, many consumer navigation devices in the U.K. now include an emergency “999” button, the equivalent of “911” in the U.S. The challenge switch manufacturers face is designing a solution that eliminates the possibility of accidental actuation while also integrating illumination for the other switches. One successful answer is a complete module groomed for a satellite-navigation software company.

The solution includes four uniformly lit tactile switches with the “999” switch recessed into the module to prevent accidental actuation (Fig. 1). It includes a device with a decorated façade including painted and laser-etched buttons and company logo plus a wire harness for interfacing with the receiver box, providing a complete module and solving a major challenge for the customer.

This isn’t just occurring in the automotive and consumer markets. From medical to marine and other industries, switch manufacturers are now working more closely with customers to increase functionality, improve efficiency, and develop complete solutions.

Functionality, Performance
To realize higher flexibility, look to the switch manufacturer for designs beyond the switch itself. As switch dimensions become more critical, it is imperative to work closely with customers to discern all the details they require. Now it is less about the switch being mountable to a PCB or adding wire leads or a connector and more about defining all design problems.

With switch manufacturers now dealing with the entire module, they are spending more time with customers determining potential impacts on the module in the particular application. For example, could the module be rubbing on a cable? Is there any vibration that may cause a problem in the application? Switch manufacturers must now consider these elements.

In the marine industry, customers need to replace mercury float switches for environmental reasons. The challenge was to replace the float switch with a sealed switch that is robust enough to withstand the harsh environment, conform to environmental standards, and ensure reliability (Fig. 2). Again, it’s not just about the switch, but also providing the connector and gasket in a sealed module as well as the assembly in the end application.

By working closely with customers in all phases of the design process, switchmakers can identify materials that interface with the operator. Those in the actual contact mechanism can be re-evaluated and altered to conform to performance, reliability, lifespan, and robustness standards. Sealing is typically required in harsh environments associated with automated assembly processes and other demanding applications, as noted above.

The medical market is perhaps the most demanding in terms of reliability. Due to its applications, there is little, if any, room for error. For example, one C&K Components customer needed a counting mechanism for electronic staples.

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Accuracy being of utmost importance, a complete module was developed that included a tactile switch to track the number of times the actuator is pressed (the number of staples used), providing an accurate count of the number of staples within the patient. By understanding the purpose of the switch, not just in terms of the end application but also within its environment, reliability increases. There also is greater opportunity for implementation of the switch into more applications beyond the original intent.

Supply-Chain Benefits
Engaging with a switch manufacturer in the development of the complete module, as opposed to multiple vendors for each design phase and component, results in smaller inventories, shorter lead times, and shorter design cycles. It also yields a faster time-to-market due to a more streamlined process of prototyping for sample orientation and faster production rampups. By using the switch supplier to design, test, and integrate the user interface module, customers are, in essence, expanding their staff without adding to their headcount.

Capitalizing on the initial purpose of a switch design and working closely with customers to solve a larger problem provides the ability to eliminate outside vendors from the supply chain. If a customer is buying multiple switches, the switch manufacturer can gang them together in a bracket and add wire leads to a connector, allowing for quick, snap-in installation. This removes the element of improper installation or mounting the switch backward. It also reduces the amount of scrap, resulting in a faster time-to-market.

The more something is touched, the more risk there is of a problem down the line. If one company manages the lowest element, the switch, and then proves that out while also developing the molding or designing and implementing the wire leads in the connector, it controls the whole process with less room for error. If there is a quality problem, there also is no question as to where it came from, further streamlining the process.

Working with a single vendor also reduces test time. C&K Components receives many requests for components with illumination and wider temperature ranges. Since the company has a Underwriters Laboratories (UL) lab on site, meeting voltage, power, temperature, and other specs is achievable without the need for an outside vendor.

Tests to ascertain whether materials within the component or module can withstand certain levels of temperature, humidity, or contamination are also available for components headed for automotive, military, or other harsh-environment applications. Controlling the basic elements of the design provides further added value to the customer while also streamlining the supply-chain process.

Cost Is Key
In the end, customers receive a custom-designed switch module that performs better than any individual switch on the market and costs less. Engaging with a switch supplier in all facets of the design and assembly process makes the life of OEMs easier for many of these reasons.

Consider a customer that usually requires a cable harness vendor as well as a vendor to integrate the switch into the application. When the switch manufacturer takes care of all these steps, fewer entities are involved and cost savings result. Plus, when a customer is looking for a cost reduction, the switch manufacturer owns the entire assembly process, allowing it to get cost down in various areas over the life of the program.

Further cost reductions ensue when the switch manufacturer determines how to package the assembly or module, plus how to ship and install it in the application while meeting all customer-specific requirements. Determining the most efficient way to ship in terms of the disposal of cartons, boxes, and packaging materials provides further savings. Employing a switch manufacturer to design, assemble, and ship the entire module cuts overall shipments and increases packaging options.

Finally, by understanding all of the elements of the customer’s needs, end application, and challenges, switch manufacturers can employ an existing, proven design rather than reinvent a custom part. Standard catalog switches most often target customers with similar design challenges.

For instance, a standard pushbutton switch for lighting applications can be paired with a chip-fed LED and a light pipe to direct light to the front of the switch. Utilizing a proven pushbutton design and integrating an LED cap that moves with the actuator to eliminate any shadows or actuation problems results in a complete package with fewer parts than the original module (Fig. 3).

Conclusion
Switch manufacturers today must be able to provide value-added services that include every aspect of the OEM’s design. By the same token, OEMs are now relying on switch manufacturers to supply the complete module rather than just the switch component.

The benefits of these capabilities are apparent to the customer and to the switch manufacturer alike. If you didn’t know switch manufacturers could play this role in the design process, it’s critical to consider them for future designs.

David Webber joined C&K Components in 2003 as worldwide product manager and is now director of product marketing. before joining C&K, he held various positions in corporate product management at Future electronics.

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