Switch pads, touch screens and other newer technologies are edging out the traditional electromechanical switches at a quickening pace, leaving switch makers scrambling for survival strategies.
Some companies, such as ITT Industries' Cannon Division (Eden Prairie, Minn.), are taking the acquisition route (see related story, page 162). Others are embracing newer technologies, focusing their efforts on faster-growing switch types, leveraging partnerships with customers and providing more effective service and support.
The fastest growing sales in North America, according to market research firm Venture Development Corp. (Natick, Mass.), are for toggle, keylock and rocker switch device types. Sales of thumbwheel and push-button switches are expected to be flat for the next several years as those technologies are subsumed, mostly by membrane switch pads. In Europe, push-button, rocker and snap-action switches account for upward of 80 percent of the market. And the fastest-growing types in the Asia-Pacific region are printed-circuit-board-mount (tact) and slide switches.
Manufacturers are replacing electromechanical switches for increased reliability and longer product life, said John A. Gordon, project manager and senior analyst in Venture Development's Electronic Components Business Group. They are opting for noncontact and reduced-contact components that employ optical and magnetic technologies. However, because electromechanical switches typically cost less and can generally handle higher current, they are still holding back the tide.
Deeming the North American switch market very mature, Venture Development expects switch sales there to exceed $1.16 billion this year and grow by 3.5 percent annually to nearly $1.3 billion by 2003. Unit sales are expected to climb at an annual rate of 4.3 percent, from 869 million this year to 989 million within three years. In Europe, Venture Development expects the switch market to grow by 2.4 percent annually from over $800 million in 1999 to almost $1 billion by 2004. Asia-Pacific sales should top $1.7 billion by then.
Gordon said rocker switches are used extensively in the transportation-automotive market, which Venture Development reckons will grow faster than any other switch market in North America. His firm anticipates less growth for switches sold to home appliance manufacturers; however, it calls the appliance segment the single largest switch market. The same holds true for Europe, while in the Asia-Pacific region the top market segments are consumer electronics, telecommunications and instrumentation.
"Vendors automated their production in order to provide uniform quality and lower production costs," said Gordon, "but the result was that switches became commoditized. Vendors are now differentiating themselves by the design and the materials used in their products, by expanding their product lines to focus on particular applications, by implementing or enhancing physical features with illumination and by working harder to meet the needs of OEMs."
Gordon said that because of smaller current ratings in switches for computer and communications applications, switches don't get the burn-off needed to prevent contacts from oxidation. "The answer was a change to gold-plated contacts, which delivered longer switch life," he said. "Vendors have to know how to provide enough product differentiation from others in the market, but also maintain compatibility to satisfy the market's demand for standardized products," Gordon said. "Too much differentiation and the vendor's product risks alienation; too little and customer selection comes down to price. Either way, profit margins suffer," he added.
Companies are trying to sculpt their product lines to favor higher-growth switches or switching technologies. Mike Schwert, manager of marketing at Cherry Electrical Products (Pleasant Prairie, Wisc.), noted that the market for sensors is growing significantly faster than the market for electromechanical switches and said a lot of discrete push-button switches are being replaced by membrane keypads.
For ITT, mobile communication is an exceptionally hot market, said Darrell Wilk, director of worldwide marketing for the Cannon Division Also hot is the off-road market for control of agricultural and construction vehicles.
"In mobile communications, manufacturers are quickly adding new features to distinguish themselves from competitors," he said, citing global positioning systems as one example. "Makers of off-road vehicles are replacing electromechanical and hydraulic control systems with electronics." Wilk added that demand for custom switches is strong in those and other markets.
Among ITT's newest products is an ultraminiature (8 x 8 x 5 mm) navigation tact switch that's suitable for use in a variety of handheld devices. The switch integrates a shaft that operates like a joystick with a liquid-crystal-display interface. When the shaft is actuated up, down, left or right, it closes single-pole contacts. Diagonal actuation closes two contacts at once. A fifth contact offers a push-to-select function that operates like the button on a computer mouse.
C&K Components (Watertown, Mass.), recently acquired by ITT/Cannon, has configured its PTS series of tactile push-button switches for surface mounting, reflecting a trend toward miniaturization that is limited by the size of a typical user's finger.
The surface-mount tactile switches are 6 x 6 x 1.5 mm and are intended for use in handheld devices. Sid Hooper, president of the North American Division of APEM Components Inc. (Wakefield, Mass.), agreed that customers want smaller switches, including surface-mount tact push-button devices. "There's a trend toward sealed switches, which are considered to be more reliable and easier to handle," he added.
APEM recently introduced its ZL series of toggle switches and a ZP series of push-button switches that feature metal bushings with or without threads, plus gold- or silver-plated contacts and solder lug or printed-circuit terminals. The single-pole switches measure 0.196 x 0.318 x 0.338 inch and are available in printed-circuit or panel-mounting models.
NKK Switches (Scottsdale, Ariz.) is also enjoying telecom success, but primarily in switching stations rather than in handheld
devices. "Telecommunications technology is changing very quickly and that's good news for us," said president Kiyoko Toyama. "We're also seeing significant business from high-end audio and video applications."
NKK is out with a new IS line of software-controlled push-button switches that can be programmed to display text, or still or moving images and can display sequential information when the switches are grouped together. They're for control panels in industrial environments, medical equipment, communication systems, audio/video broadcast workstations and airport traffic control panels.
Cherry Electrical Products is marketing anMP 1013 line of snapfit, Hall-effect proximity switches designed to work around dirt, dust, moisture and other harsh environmental conditions. The switches can sense the proximity of a magnetic field when the face of the package is exposed toa south magnetic field that can range from 180 to 300 G.
Venture Development's Gordon said that OEM customers aren't as concerned as they used to be about reliability, thanks largely to the widespread use of automated production methods. They're more concerned now with size and mounting specifications and functional characteristics, "and, while price is still important, it's beginning to take a back seat to factors such as availability, delivery, lead times, local sourcing and higher levels of customer service."
John Sutherby, director of worldwide marketing at C&K, said customers want added value from switch suppliers. "Instead of just buying a switch," he said, "they want assemblies that may include special connectors mounting hardware or markings." Cherry's Schwert said his company is also engaged in value-added assembly work.
"There's also a desire for more aesthetics-switches in a variety of colors and shapes," said APEM's Hooper. He also suggested that to meet those needs, it's important for a switch maker to be vertically integrated.
Customers also want design assistance from switch suppliers, said C&K's Sutherby, so his company has beefed up its technical support staff with engineering talent. "Many switch makers route design-related calls to their sales departments," he said, "but customers don't always know what they want and they appreciate it when someone can give them good answers."
When a switch manufacturer's engineers get involved earlier in a customer's design process, the result is a better product at a lower price, added Eric Youngblood, an application engineer at Ark-Les Corp. (Greensboro, N.C.).
Honeywell's Freeport, Ill.-based Sensing and Control Division, formerly MicroSwitch, manufactures precision snap-acting switches, slide switches and rotary selector switches among other types, said application engineer Bernard Ackland. Among its major markets are automotive, appliance, HVAC and industrial automation. Ackland said Honeywell's business has grown as its key customers have grown and added that most of that business comes from standard switches.
Price pressure in the electromechanical switch market is no worse now than it's ever been, said Ackland, and over time Honeywell has automated more of its manufacturing processes to save costs and remain competitive. The company's most popular switches are those in its 20-year-old V7 series, which was designed to meet both U.S. and European standards.
Cherry's Schwert also lauded the importance of automation. "Costs have been slowly wrung out of switch manufacturing over the years," he said, "and today it's the high-volume, commodity manufacturing processes that keep switch firms in business."
Switches may be a mature technology, Schwert conceded, "but I don't see it going away. People have been predicting the demise of this business for 30 years, but I see it lasting for many years to come."
APEM Components Inc.
EETInfo No. 610
Cherry Electrical Products
EETInfo No. 611
C&K Components Inc.
EETInfo No. 612
Honeywell Sensing & Controls division
EETInfo No. 613
ITT Industries' Cannon division
EETInfo No. 614
EETInfo No. 615
Venture Development Corp.
EETInfo No. 616