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PCB Relays Move into High-Reliability Markets

Omron's low-signal PCB relays are available with contacts
in varying degrees of gold flash to meet a variety of
high-reliability applications.
As the demand for printed-circuit-board (PCB) relays grows, so does the need for high-performance, high-reliability products in markets such as automotive, medical imaging, and automation applications. The good news for buyers is that relay manufacturers are addressing the challenge by developing new products or enhancing existing product lines to meet their needs.

The increased electronic content in vehicles and higher demand for consumer electronic products particularly in Asia has created increased demand for PCB relays, according to a Frost & Sullivan report. Electric and hybrid vehicles are also expected to boost PCB relay demand. The global PCB relay market is forecast to grow from $2.4 billion in 2012 to $4.5 billion in 2019, according to the market research firm.

“As vehicle manufacturers continue to give priority to powertrain and engine performance, in addition to fuel efficiency, the demand for PCB relays is expected to remain steady,” says Lavanya Rammohan, electronics research analyst, Frost & Sullivan, Mountain View, Calif.

The military/aerospace and medical markets also are big consumers of PCB relays, with commercial aerospace pushing the envelope in technology and rugged PCB relays, says Rammohan. The big market for PCB relays in medical applications includes ultrasound, scanning and x-ray equipment.

Buyers should expect to pay a price premium for these higher reliability and higher performance parts.

“High-reliability PCB relays, especially for medical, industrial, aerospace and defense, etc., are able to command a better price point,” says Rammohan. “The high-risk and high-reliability requirements encourage OEMs to focus on quality, and buyers are open to pay a premium price for high quality and rugged PCB relays.”

The good news is that PCB relay prices are stable.

“A lot of customers understand [that] in order to get increased performance it may come with an additional cost, and a lot of times that will be driven by the cost of gold,” says Jason Lipps, product marketing specialist, Omron Electronic Components LLC,
Littleton, Colo.
“I don't foresee any price increases as result of increased manufacturing costs," says Jason Lipps, product marketing specialist, Omron Electronic Components LLC, Littleton, Colo. Although prices are “fairly stable,” raw materials pricing particularly for copper and gold have the biggest impact on relay prices, he adds.

Gold flashing on the contacts for high reliability is a specific need for many applications, adds Lipps.

“A lot of customers understand [that] in order to get increased performance it may come with an additional cost, and a lot of times that will be driven by the cost of gold,” he says.

For example, Omron's low-signal PCB G6S, G6K and G6J family of relays all come with contacts with varying degrees of gold content.

“Some customers are wondering if increasing the thickness of the gold flash will help them achieve a little better performance in their applications,” says Lipps.

While pricing is less of a concern for buyers this year, they should pay close attention to supply and work with their supplier partners and distributors to ensure a steady supply during times of volatile demand.

“Demand for consumer electronics is dependent on end-user buying behavior," says Rammohan. “Slow buying behavior forces OEMs to adopt the wait-and-watch approach, and as a result, they are conservative on their orders for PCB relays. This results in reduced orders for PCB relay manufacturers and overfill in inventory."

“At the same time, as market demand increases, OEMs ramp their orders, causing a lack in supply and leading to longer lead times,” she adds. “This was apparent during the economic downturn in 2009 and recovery after that.”

This scenario also holds true for high-performance PCB relays. Although supply and demand is in balance, and lead times are holding at 12 weeks for medium-volume production, a few larger OEMs are driving significant increases in demand, says Lipps.

“It's a situation that relay manufacturers are watching closely to minimize any disruptions,” he says.

New product development

In many cases, PCB relay manufacturers, as well as other component suppliers, focus their new product development on high-performance parts to offset the low prices and low margins for commodity devices. Advances often focus on reliability, low power consumption, ruggedness, contact resistance, and packaging, say relay manufacturers.

Omron's G6K family of low-signal PCB relays
target telecommunications, medical equipment,
office and building automation, and test and
measurement applications.
“With advancements in technology, PCB relay manufacturers have to innovate to offer reduced switching times, increased efficiency, and superior safety features," says Rammohan. “Overall, escalating end-user demand for top performance, thermal dissipation, reliability, in conjunction with reduced prices, will drive innovation in PCB relays and boost market growth.”

“There are very specific applications where high-reliability PCB relays are needed, such as medical imaging—MRI and CT scans—and automotive applications, says Lipps. Other markets include dental imaging as well as automotive diagnostics and avionic diagnostics equipment.

“A lot of customers today are using traditional PCB and low-signal electromechanical relays,” explains Lipps. “Customers who already have them in their designs are trying to push the bounds of their applications, which push the performance of the relay."

Lipps says it's a collaborative effort between the relay manufacturer and the customer, “in terms of what can we do as a manufacturer to understand the customer's application better and how the customer can learn more about the characteristics of the relay that are being used.”

Omron is taking existing designs and moving them toward more high-reliability switching solutions, adds Lipps: “It's trying to find that sweet spot and advance the relays that we have today to make them better for more customers."