There is an old adage posted in offices and manufacturing plants around the world that states, "Price, quality or speed – pick any two." I think it's a safe bet to say these signs are never found in the facilities of companies distributing military or commercial aerospace connectors. In this arena, two out of three is not an option for distributors or manufacturers. Military specification (mil/spec) connectors must be competitively priced. They must absolutely meet the specified performance and quality levels, and delivery schedules are ironclad.
By the nature of the connectors used in mil/aero applications, buyers find little room for product competition or substitutions between different suppliers, or choosing between mil/spec and commercial off the shelf (COTS) parts. While there are a few single source parts in the universe of connectors, typically the specifications are so tightly defined, even in commercial aircraft cases, the specified connector is often the only applicable one. It is challenging for the buyer and the supplier as well.
Today's connector suppliers understand not just these requirements, but also deal with the extremely long lead times between the engineering of a new aircraft or system and the many years that can pass before the first finished aircraft rolls off the assembly line.
The constraints of the procurement system require distributors to ensure the integrity of their price, quality and delivery terms in order to maintain a position as an approved vendor. Gateways such as these, combined with the demands of distributing only parts as a 100% authorized distributor, restrict the available connectors to a limited range of options for the buyer. However, the system does ensure the safety and security of the connectors in the aircraft; one of many mission critical components is an aircraft's overall system.
Connectors can be as complex as many of the systems they are integrating – specifications deal with the physical size and type of the connector – cylindrical or rectangular, the type of shell, and the type of plating, number of contacts, pin or socket. The options and permutations can number in the hundreds of thousands.
Pricing over recent years has been largely predictable thanks in part to the relative stability in commodity prices. As the base materials for connectors include plastics manufactured from petroleum, contacts plated with precious metals, and often housings machined from materials such as aluminum, fluctuations in the prices of raw materials create most of the price pressure on finished connectors. After a brief spike in these commodity prices during the mid-2000s, prices have leveled off and industry sources expect prices to remain steady in the near term, as long as the raw materials markets allow.
With stable pricing, counterfeiting of mil/spec connectors is not as great a threat as it was in the 1970s when there was a significant source of surplus and reclaimed parts that could be refurbished and passed off as new. With the focus on the dangers and unreliability of grey market and undocumented parts, TTI has the advantage of providing 100% authorized parts backed by full chain of custody documentation.
However, the market for military and aerospace parts has seen considerable movement below the surface. Major changes in military budgets, systems and priorities have roiled the military market, while the commercial aircraft industry has experienced improving demand with new aircraft, markets and redesigns boosting manufacturing and deliveries.
As connectors become more physically compact, and increase circuit throughput, engineers will innovate new, creative ways to utilize the additional room they will have on the circuit board, reducing the overall size of the product design and improving performance.