Technological innovation within the motorsport connector industry is driving cross fertilisation into the aerospace sector. Electronic Specifier Editor Joe Bush talks to Lemo (UK) MD Peter Dent to find out more.
One of the key market sectors for Lemo connectors is the motorsport industry, and as the UK is a centre for innovation within this market and for Formula One, it is also a key focus for Lemo (UK). Not only that but Lemo’s owner also owns the Rebellion Le Mans racing team, so the passion for motorsport runs deep within the company.
Peter Dent, Lemo (UK) MD, commented: “What developed as a result of innovation in Formula One was our original F Series which has now evolved into our next generation of connectors - the M Series - which is a very small connector with enhanced features to meet the needs of the motorsport industry - including a triple-start locking mechanism, vibration-proofing, visual indication, arctic grip etc.”
The number of sensors on the average Formula One car has increased dramatically over the last few years, as has the demands on the humble connector. These days they are required to be as small and as light as possible to aid weight distribution and improve performance.
Dent continued: “What Lemo has done is invest significantly in very top end motorsport connectors and then those products are being revised as that industry moves forward. We’ve packed in high density, small connectors as there are more sensors on the cars now than there were a few years ago, and we’ve added features to improve reliability under vibration so you don’t get unlocking. We’ve then taken those products and looked to sell them into the military and aerospace market where applications demand similar exacting standards and reliability.”
Cross fertilisation is a key concept for Lemo, and it’s something that is present in many industries as Dent explains: “Look at avionics for example. Compared to 20 years ago, there is a lot of avionic architecture that is now built into fighting vehicles. However, as more electronic devices started to be incorporated into fighting vehicles, they started to look at aerospace to see how they packaged these electronics effectively and efficiently. So in fighting vehicles, you will now see that devices are being mounted in the same way as they are in a fighter jet – the increase in the amount of additional electronics has increased the need to be more space efficient.”
It’s here that Formula One has driven technology to a very high level and is constantly pushing for faster development of connectors, which enables Lemo to get ahead of the game when it takes these products to the aerospace sector (cross fertilisation), as they tend to be smaller, lighter and more flexible than those that are currently in use in this market. As Formula One has changed over the last few years they’ve introduced a lot of engine changes through legislation. This means that the requirements for better engine performance has increased, markedly. This has in turn resulted in more sensors on the car meaning there is a requirement for smaller sensor connectors. There’s been a whole new generation of connectors introduced to seek that competitive advantage.
“The M Series has been born out of Formula One teams liaising with us and telling us exactly what they need from their next generation connectors,” continued Dent. “Obviously, reliability is a key factor – teams don’t want a product that’s going to fail in a race so we need to supply them with a product which has proven reliability in harsh environments where there are high levels of vibration and corrosion. These products are being pushed to the limit so reliability and longevity are key.”
A slow burner
Cross fertilisation across some industries, particularly aerospace and defence, can take a considerable amount of time, however. Traditionally a more reserved industry, universal acceptance of a new product can take years, “I’ve seen connectors being used in the aerospace industry that were developed in the 1950s and 60s,” said Dent.
The Eurofighter, for example, went into service in the early 2000’s but the technology used was developed around fifteen to twenty years earlier so the connectors that were chosen are automatically about fifteen years out of date by the time they go into service. The proving at a component level takes time, as well. The aircraft has to get flight hours to be approved for mass production which takes many years. Naturally, once that investment has been made they don’t want to change it.”
The initial investment in getting platforms such as this up and running is huge and they run for many years. Once a product is entrenched into a military application it’s usually present for the lifetime of the platform unless there’s a major upgrade. The cost of qualifying a change is far more than the cost of the materials involved – it could cost hundreds of thousands of pounds to qualify a change of connector in a black-box for example.
Because the applications are mission critical in the aerospace and defence sector, design changes are very tightly controlled. In contrast, at the end of every season in Formula One the teams get a new car, so the driving factor in that environment is the constant introduction of new design and an opportunity to push the boundaries every season - whereas in aerospace there aren’t as many technology insertion points as there are on a car.
On the other hand, if you’re introducing technology into the aerospace sector, there are more economies of scale and people willing to invest, whereas in autosport there simply aren’t that many cars being made. Dent concluded: “Aerospace attracts more investment than Formula One from a connector industry point of view because there’s a lot more revenue generated.”