Bullet Proof Cable Assemblies
Executive interview with Chris Kneizys, president of Micro-Coax
MWJ: What primary growth markets/applications is Micro-Coax concentrating on for the next 12-18 months?
CK: We see considerable opportunities for growth of our products in the space and civil aviation markets both domestically and internationally. Our high-reliability cable assemblies and KEVLAR-based ARACON composite shielding material are ideally suited to the demands that these markets place on reliability and weight reduction.
MWJ: What are some of the specialty materials and processes unique to Micro-Coax that provide advantages to customers using your products?
CK: ARACON (a plated KEVLAR fiber) is perhaps both our most unique specialty material, as well as our most sophisticated manufacturing process. The result is an ultra-lightweight and high-strength EMI/RF shielding substitute for traditional nickel-plated copper braid wire that can be used in spacecraft, aircraft, UAVs and aerostats, as well as non-traditional woven fabric applications. The resulting weight savings (60 to 80 percent over traditional materials) can be used to increase mission time, reduce launch costs or to increase payload capacity. It has the most extensive aviation and spaceflight heritage of any composite shielding yarn on the market.
Another recently launched product is called Safe-D-Lock (self-locking coupling nut), which again serves as a more reliable and less expensive alternative to traditional connector locking methods.
We design and produce most of our cable and connector materials right in our own plant in Pottstown, Pa., and often subject them to even more stringent specifications than our customers. From wire stranding to core extrusion to connector machining and plating to tape wrapping and braiding, our processes are specifically designed to optimize the performance and reliability of an integrated cable assembly.
MWJ: As military spending is projected to decline domestically, the market for UAVs is expected to be one of the few areas of growth. What cable and connector design factors are most important and what types of products are you offering in this area?
CK: Reliability has been and always will be the most important design factor. The challenge we face in today’s market climate is to maintain our current level of quality, reliability and performance, while lowering costs and providing short delivery times. We view the unmanned aircraft market much the same as the aircraft market, in general. Just because the pilot is off board, it does not change the need of mission success.
Reliable and durable lightweight cable solutions will be the key for this marketplace. ARACON cable with lightweight connector bodies will be our main products for this area.
Over the years, we have invested heavily in high-density connector solutions, mass reduction and self-locking technology. Our latest product, Safe-D-LOCK™, is a great example where the reliability of the connector is enhanced with little or no mass penalty.
MWJ: How is Micro-Coax addressing the low PIM requirements for the cellular infrastructure industry?
CK: We have low PIM connectors and PIM resistant cables that are specifically designed and fabricated to achieve the demanding PIM requirements in today’s marketplace.
We have been fulfilling the PIM requirements of both our satellite and telecom customers since the 1990s. Traditionally, we combat PIM with our connector design, cable design, material choices and assembly techniques. More recently, we have experimented with 3D CT-scanning to gain greater control of our solder penetration. This helps us as we strive for lower levels of PIM.
MWJ: Many companies make test cables, what differentiates your test cables from others?
CK: Product performance and ease of ordering a custom test cable. Our test cables are known for their phase stability and highly captivated connectors, which results in a more accurate test measurement. We were the first cable assembly company to offer a fully integrated Internet-based Web store for test cables. Customers can custom configure exactly what they need in our most popular cable/connector combinations — obtain a quotation and place their order online and receive a confirmation date — with delivery often within a day or two. They are able to get what they want quickly rather than settling for “what’s in stock.”
MWJ: How does the partnership with Rosenberger in the UK benefit the two companies?
CK: The partnership was formed in 1990 to marry Micro-Coax’s cable technology with Rosenberger’s connector technology to produce cable assemblies for the European marketplace. At the time the partnership was formed, Micro-Coax had a two-person office in the U.K. Today, we have expanded to two locations and 35 people. In 2007, we acquired Rhophase Microwave and today have integrated them into our Blackburn cable assembly facility.
MWJ: What are your main vehicles for distribution of your products worldwide?
CK: This is done in several ways, primarily dependent on the types of products we are selling. In the U.S.A., we use a combination of Micro-Coax application engineers paired with independent sales representatives to focus on make-to-print cable assemblies and ARACON products. For our bulk cable products in the U.S.A. (semi-rigid cable, MFLEX and UTiFORM), we have five distributors. In Europe, our full product line of custom assemblies, ARACON and bulk cable products are offered through our UK-JV, Rosenberger Micro-Coax LTD, which also uses a combination of application engineers and local sales representatives. In Asia, we have a sale representative and distributor in Japan and sell direct in China. In South America, we have a combination of sales representatives and direct selling from the factory.
MWJ: Micro-Coax offers quick turn around on online orders, how has the online store been working for your business and are there any plans for enhancements in the near future?
CK: As mentioned earlier, our Web store still offers the only fully integrated quoting and order placement capability for customer cable assemblies. It has been so successful for us that just this month we added several new capabilities and opened a second Web store for bulk cable products. To the original flexible cable assembly Web store, we just added the ability to purchase phase-matched assemblies. We also added a new product line of thermal vacuum (“TVAC”) compatible test cable assemblies. Our new bulk cable products Web store features a wide variety of our most popular semi-rigid and low-loss flexible cable (MFLEX) and hand formable cable (UTiFORM) types for immediate delivery. We would expect to add ARACON products to our Web offerings in 2014
MWJ: What are your plans for major new product introductions over the next year (that you can disclose)?
CK: We developed Safe-D-Lock for TNC connectors, and we recently completed an extensive qualification of ARACON products for the civil aviation market.
MWJ: As a leading RF cable and connector manufacturer, what challenges do you see ahead over the next couple of years for the RF industry from a cable and connector perspective?
CK: All of our customers are focused on “affordability.” They are demanding lower prices for the existing products they purchase. Educating our customers on the best way to achieve that without sacrificing reliability is our greatest challenge. Much of the cost of what we provide on existing programs is driven by manufacturing process changes that increased costs but improved reliability from a “lessons learned” perspective. No customer wants a million-dollar missile to miss its target or multi-million-dollar radar to be 20 percent less accurate three years after it is put into service because a less reliable passive component was substituted under the guise of “affordability.” Configuration control exists due to “lessons learned” experiences — something has to give. The suppliers providing the reliable product need to be given the freedom to redesign their offering using their latest technology if they are competing against bidders who have not experienced the painful learning curve on many of these programs and are representing to the customer that they can offer a “similar” product. “Similar” and reliability are often in conflict with each other.
The company that is successful in lowering costs while providing the same level of quality, reliability and performance will be the one that leads the marketplace. The gap in performance between manufactures is starting to close over time, so the company will need a differentiator in the marketplace, such as Safe-D-Lock and ARACON. Military customers are concerned not only with current costs, but operational costs over the life of the product. Products that are priced well and offer considerable weight savings will allow customers to achieve their upfront andoperational cost targets. Micro-Coax is working diligently to lower costs and continually improve on performance, while offering custom solutions to our customers.
From a technology perspective, things continue to get smaller, packaging is denser and the operating frequencies continue to move higher. This leads to smaller connectors and cables both of which need to be manufactured and assembled with greater and greater precision to enhance insertion loss and VSWR performance at the higher frequencies. That, in turn, places greater demands on raw materials and manufacturing techniques.