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issue: February 2009 APPLIANCE Magazine

Switches & Switching Devices
Switches: Sustaining in Tough Times


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by Diane Ritchey, news editor

Switches and switching devices suppliers meet the demands of an appliance industry that is being hit by a dismal economy.

E-Switch’s TL1290 right-angle, illuminated tact switch has through-hole termination and LED color offerings of blue, red, green, and yellow. Gold-plated contacts provide high-reliability switching.

Even in rough economic times, switches and switching device suppliers are evolving their products to meet global manufacturing standards, provide smaller components at lower costs, and make headway against global competition.

“The factors influencing change in switch design and production are not necessarily new or unique, and are quite likely affecting other industries in a similar fashion,” says Larry Hedeman, sales and marketing manager for World Magnetics (Traverse City, MI, U.S.; www.worldmagnetics.com). Primary market factors for change, he says, include rising costs of energy and finite resources along with the resulting need to be energy and resource efficient; needed flexibility to employ alternative resources or raw materials where possible; an increasing demand for new and/or improved medical devices to address an aging population bubble; increasing niche markets needing custom design; a returning appreciation for the beauty of simplicity in product function and design; and eco-friendly green market demands.

Deborah Sage, senior marketing coordinator for M.H. Rhodes/Cramer Co. (South Windsor, CT, U.S.; www.mhrhodes-cramer.com), adds that across the board, there’s an increase in energy efficient and green products that will change the way that switches are manufactured in the future.

 

Impact of the Global Recession


Cherry Electrical Products Corp.’s KR series of miniature, water-resistant rocker switches are for outdoor appliances, power equipment, and commercial appliances in which the switch will be exposed to fluids, weather, or other harsh conditions. A silicone-rubber actuator and snap-fit mounting make it IP65 compliant against dust and water.

All other demands aside, the global recession is forcing switch manufacturers to change the way they do business. Sage tells APPLIANCE that an “increase in shipping costs, reduced customer spending, and corporate lean inventory initiatives can reduce and delay purchases, thus the domino effect of reduced sales.”

Despite the tough economic times, many switch manufacturers remain optimistic.

“We’re seeing smaller supplier and client product inventories for early 2009, but our focus on niche products and our complete in-house concept to market capabilities have helped our stability,” says Hedeman. “We are also actively looking at lower-cost material components, researching our engineering to reduce the number and variety of components, and continually working to improve our production methods.”

Jerry Peplau, product manager for switches for Carling Technologies Inc. (Plainville, CT, U.S.; www.carlingtech.com), says the company is holding steady and even growing by “working as a partner with many of our key accounts, with multiyear contracts, and new custom designs to ensure we receive and keep growing our switch business.”

According to Jerry Harting, director of sales and marketing, Fenwal Controls (Ashland, MA, U.S.; www.fenwalcontrols.com), “In the down market we are currently experiencing, customers are asking for lower prices on smaller volumes of the same products to keep their business (a new definition of ‘partnership’).” Fenwal established global manufacturing of several product lines in 2005 to maintain the ability to be competitive in the global market. “We have found that it is also important to adapt our designs to materials and alloys that are globally available, and where possible reduce dependence on specialty materials,” he says. “It needs to be recognized that complex capital equipment may not be supportable in the context of a global supply chain. Rather than revert to manual assembly to take advantage of lower labor costs, we are developing our designs using automation concepts to make them easier to build and maintain, which also improves product quality.”

Sandro Bassini, sales director, Everel Group S.p.A. (Valeggio sul Mincio, Italy; www.everel.eu), notes that some product categories are holding their own. “While the present economic crisis affects every market, some sectors, such as medical applications, coffee machines, and professional appliances, are better organized to face the situation.”

Harting says that commercial, medical, and industrial applications are doing “ok” to “well.” “While the volume of the residential white goods markets is attractive, the price point and market value are less compatible with our go-to-market strategy,” he says. “In 2008, our industrial and commercial markets have held up fairly well relative to 2007, while a more severe downturn was felt in the consumer markets.”

 

Standards Cost

The E-T-A Elektrotechnische Apparate GmbH circuit breaker Type 1120 is a combination of circuit breaker and on-off rocker switch. Single-pole and double-pole versions with one-pole protected are offered with additional water splash protection.

 

Switches need to meet increasingly stringent UL/CSA/IEC standards, and according to Ron Celander, head of engineering for E-Switch (Minneapolis, MN, U.S.; www.e-switch.com), “The raw material cost increase due to the environmental mandates such as RoHS, REACH, and halogen free, and labor cost increases to our production, have increased costs overall.” To add to the challenge, he points out, “OEMs are continually looking for cost reductions from their suppliers, and demand has tapered off.”

Jim Rinck, vice president of marketing and sales, Douglas Corp. (Eden Prairie, MN, U.S.; www.douglascorp.com), says that RoHS compliance and the price associated with the new inks and connectors to achieve compliance is an ongoing cost concern. “UL- and CSA-approved materials do not present a problem. However, the assembly of the approved components into a custom switch design does not by themselves represent an approved final switch,” he explains. “That final approval must be granted on a switch-by-switch submission.”

Sage of M.H. Rhodes/Cramer tells APPLIANCE that, in particular, plastic components (as opposed to steel or other structural materials) in switches are scrutinized. “UL and CSA have a variety of performance requirements for plastics used in areas where the electrical contacts of the switch make and break the circuit(s), specifically with respect to heat and dielectric-withstand properties,” she explains.

Appliance engineers, Sage adds, may find that it pays to select recognized component plastics already in UL’s plastics database, with values of tested parameters listed and posted on the UL Web site. “Materials used in switch design not in their database will incur additional testing costs during the UL approval process for the product,” she says. “During UL product inspections, while the inspector reviews the file report for a particular switch, focus is placed on the plastic components listed and typically requires viewing the supplier certifications for those components to be sure the materials are the same as in the report.”

Bassini of Everel Group says that, while characteristics of plastic materials must be rigorously tested for standards compliance, there are now many approved material choices to satisfy most designer needs.

Harting says that many Fenwal components are metallic, so plastics prices are not as significant a concern for the company. “However, the overall cost of plastics is rising due to the uncertain cost of oil. Where aesthetics or impact resistance are not prime considerations, we are looking at using ceramics as an alternative to plastics,” he says. “In the right application, ceramics offer superior electrical properties for less cost than engineered plastic materials.”

 

DesignFlex ultra-sensitive pressure, vacuum, and differential switches from World Magnetics have sensing capability as low as 0.03 in H2O up to 60 psi, and offers both low and higher current models, with multiple porting options.

Global Competition

Global competition in the switch industry can be tough, and cheaper isn’t always better. “Global competition has driven down margins,” points out Celander of E-Switch. “OEMs are looking at purchasing similar product at lower cost assuming they are getting the identical part. In reality, there may be differences in quality levels and manufacturing, such as reduced plating thicknesses.”

In fact, some switches are becoming commodity items. Peplau of Carling says that, in the United States, low-cost switches from some offshore suppliers have driven down price—as well as quality and service. Carling is taking the opposite approach. “We are working as a partner with many of our customers, releasing new switch designs, to meet and exceed the customer’s requirements for quality, reliability, and safety—in a cost-effective product—and within their lead time requirements. We are focusing on the advanced products and markets, and not on the commodity items.”

Hedeman of World Magnetics has seen competition drive down the price in commodity-type switches, often used in furnaces and water heaters—and the resulting quality as well. His company has become more of a specialized switch manufacturer. It has the benefit of manufacturing the vast majority of its products entirely in-house with facilities for die-casting, stamping, injection and compression molding, machining, and assembly. Because it manufactures its own tooling, dies, molds, and fixtures, the company can ensure fast turnaround on custom designs.

Fenwal has also changed its approach to the market. “Our focus is on a total value proposition for the customer requiring a supplier with applications know-how and experience, especially with high reliability, high temperature, and stringent performance requirements,” he says. “Technical support, custom-configured products, and value-added assemblies position us more as a solutions provider, rather than a sales organization.”

And the price advantages for U.S.-based OEMs buying off-shore switches are not what they used to be. Steve Hugener, director of marketing for Cherry Electrical Products Corp. (Pleasant Prairie, WI, U.S.; www.cherrycorp.com) says that, overall, switches from China-based manufacturers still tend to be the most price competitive. “But during 2008 we saw such a significant swing in freight costs and such a rise in the cost of materials in comparison with the weakening foreign exchange rate for dollar and peso, that the competitive position of North American manufacturers improved significantly.”

 

Doing More with Less


Lamb Industries Anti-Vandal Switches now offer bi-color illumination and markings to allow the OEM to bring character and style to their products.

Doing More with Less

As with other appliance components, switch manufacturers are increasingly forced to find ways to provide a switch with a smaller footprint, with more power, that costs less, has fewer parts, and is aesthetically pleasing. Celander of E-Switch tells APPLIANCE, “The market is driving toward smaller devices and incorporating illumination or other design features…such as being environmentally sealed.” He adds that the requirements are to incorporate as many features as possible in the same or smaller package size with reduced cost.

“We see requests for lower cost, smaller size, increased sensitivity, and tighter tolerances,” says Hedeman of World Magnetics. “The demand for smaller footprints has been steadily increasing for some time. We even see furnace manufacturers that want small switches to decrease the size of their furnaces. In our example, the furnace manufacturer would be likely to look at our PSF102 versus the Goldtech-style switch. We also see many more components on the PCB and using simple PLC to operate the system(s).”

Douglas Corp. also sees an increase in requests for doing more with less. Rinck says, “Douglas sees an increase in the number of components required in membrane switches, such as LEDs and resistors. At the same time, the OEMs are looking for a finished assembly rather than just a switch that still must be mated with other components.” He adds that vendor-managed inventory control is often requested.

Switching to the Future

“The requirement of a nice aesthetic today is frequent, but sometimes difficult to satisfy because of the request, at the same time, of very low prices,” Bassini of Everel Group points out. “Everel has developed new switches allowing an easy customization to be used when the design of the appliance requires a special cosmetic appearance, even with illuminated switches.”

“We work with our customers to meet their goals and, above all, focus on the lowest total installed cost. It’s hard to sell a customer something they don’t need, but we create value by working with OEMs to optimize our product for their application and making it easy to stock, handle, and install,” Harting of Fenwal explains. “‘Selling a solution’ is a very overused phrase, but it still accurately describes our approach for creating long-term relationships with our OEMs.”

Adapting to the market is always on the minds of switch manufacturers and is clearly the way to establish and keep relationships with appliance OEMs, especially in tough global economic times.

Switch companies that provide tech support, application know-how, and advanced products do not want to be lumped in with the commodity suppliers.

 

 

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