Visited: ElectroneX 2016 (14-15 September 2016)

electronex-entrybadgeElectroneX is one of the major electronics design and assembly exhibitions in Australia, and they alternate between Sydney and Melbourne on an annual basis. Two years ago, they were in Sydney, and I was helping out element14 exhibiting there at the time. This year, I returned as a visitor to see what’s new and have a chat with representatives from distributors and companies and other like minded people.

Unfortunately, I was too busy having a chat with so many people that I didn’t have a chance to take many photos, so this is mainly going to be a lump of text. As my interests are mainly in test equipment, electronic components and less so in manufacturing, I probably won’t make a mention of all the companies on the floor. Do note that a mention of the company doesn’t mean that I endorse them or their products, but probably means I had a nice insightful chat with them.

On the Floor

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The first company I run into on the way in is Hammond Manufacturing. A highly respected enclosure manufacturer from Canada with a long history, I wasn’t aware just how diverse their range of cases are (virtually all materials – various plastics, die cast, extrusion, stainless steel, folded steel, etc). Their display was impressive, and getting to take home a small project box was really icing on the cake. The most surprising thing was their Australian presence, with regular shipments on a weekly basis, and the ability to accommodate custom orders at very low order quantities as well as single cases in the case of prototypes or sampling to work out what works best. I’ve been aware of their products from element14 (and indeed, some of their own branded cases are in fact OEMed by Hammond from my knowledge), so that’s good to know.

I walked around the corner to find Semikron, another highly reputed company specializing in power electronics, drives and componentry. I’m not particularly knowledgable, but seeing a thyristor rated at several thousand amps (i.e. the sort you might find running the traction drive on an electric multiple unit train) was valuable to me. I did have a good chat with the representative about how the material science is really pushing the technology with higher currents, voltages, temperature tolerance, switching rates, etc. Their potted modules and other solutions were on show, but apparently, they also are connected with UNSW in research in some manner, which was exciting.

Speaking of UNSW, our Sunswift team were exhibiting at ElectroneX, sharing space with Trio Test and Measurement who were showing some Keysight Technologies equipment, including a range of DMMs, thermal imagers, spectrum analyzers (Fieldfox) and signal generators. It was nice chatting to some guys from the Sunswift team – the guys from Trio seemed to be swamped by interest around their spectrum analyzers, so I didn’t have a chance to jump in and say “hi”, but seeing as I saw them at Comms Connect last year, that wasn’t too much of a loss.

In terms of local component distributors and vendors, this year we had Altronics (a company that had almost completely slipped my mind), as well as Soanar (somehow closely related to Jaycar/Electus Distribution it seems). None of the other big names seemed to be present, although overseas component manufacturer/distributor Wurth Elektronik was exhibiting. I was mainly aware of their magnetics components from element14, but they also seem to do a wide variety of connectors, and now, even electrolytic capacitors. It also shocked me to know that they do accept orders directly, even for individual quantities, which means another source for components which would come in very handy.

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Moving on to Scientific Devices Australia, they were showing a full range of Lecroy high-performance DSOs. Mostly responsible for the high end stuff, I got a good introduction to their Waverunner series. It seems that crazy-high sample rates are a “thing” now, with this unit boasting 40GS/s and four analog channels, with spectrum analysis and digital input/trigger as well. Interfaces using touch-screens also seemed to be quite common, and all of the ones on display were very much “PC based”, with the side panel having an ATX-backplate pretty much “giving it away”. In fact, quite a few instruments from other vendors were PC based as well, with some running Windows 7 (or similar). When it comes to PC-driven instruments, it’s a great thing because there’s extensibility in adding software for other features (e.g. remote control), but it also means additional responsibility when it comes to keeping it “clean” and vulnerability free. Apparently, later that afternoon, a fairly reasonably priced unit was to be unveiled, however, I didn’t stay long enough to see it.

In a twist of fate, they were stationed right next to Emona Instruments, which I’ve dealt with through the university, and they were showing off a whole range of reasonably priced Rigol gear, as well as a high resolution Trotec thermal imaging camera. I wasn’t aware of Trotec – when I think thermal imaging, the “regular” trio of FLIR, Fluke and Keysight come to mind. The main thing that impressed me was the manual focus which could get down to reasonably close distances, which is important if you want to maximise your hotspot detection on small objects such as PCBs.

Just across from them were Vicom, distributors for Keithley and Tektronix equipment in Australia. I’ve known them for a few years, but it was still good to have a chat and look at the new RSA306B with screw-down USB lead (to stop the connector from coming out), as well as some of their latest MDO series scopes, source measure units, battery simulators and 7.5 digit DMMs. Particularly impressive was a relatively “large” parameter analyzer unit which basically features a whole computer with touch-screen interface running their own graphical test suite software and video-based help tutorials. The unit is expandable to work with their acquisition cards which offer abilities including SMU features, and external CVIV switching as well as talking with other instruments. It can really be built up as a comprehensive test and measurement set-up “in a box”, with acquisition cards that supposedly have comparable performance to the bench-top devices they replace. Pretty cool if you ask me.

I stopped off at Lintek, which was an eye opening experience for me. They’re an Australian manufacturer specializing in hard-to-make RF PCBs using exotic substrates, very suitable for microwave work, as well as very thin trace work. They have a regular business card, but they also have this work of art:

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Yep. That’s a PCB business card, on a fairly thin substrate. But unlike most PCBs, it seems they really challenged themselves to show off some very intricate boardwork and consistent high-quality manufacturing. Because of its “delicateness”, it’s been covered in a protective plastic layer on both sides. To give you an idea, the underside had this pattern scanned in with a 2400dpi scanner:

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50um traces with 50um gap. The regularity of the traces and gaps is amazing. In case you’re not aware of the scale, each line basically represents 1/10th of a millimeter.

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Straight runs might be easy, but this very tight spiral is hard – I can’t see any irregularities or shorts … very impressive indeed. There are also very closely spaced vias, and routed traces around pads. I know who to go to for very complex board work! What a piece of art.

On the way back across the floor, I stopped off at ADM Instrument Engineering who were showing off a suite of Mean Well power supplies and LED current drivers. It was another case of being fascinated by the wide variety of quality products with solid warranties, while lamenting the fact that Mean Well are plagued with some grey import issues (unapproved units coming into the country) and misappropriation of their name (e.g. high-bay lights being sold as Mean Well lights when only the drivers are Mean Well products). Regardless, the 5-year and 7-year warranties on some of their products really shows just how confident they are in their products, so I applaud them on that, and choosing more quality Japanese capacitors (from what I saw and was told). Another good thing is that they seem to be happy to do small quantity orders as well – so I’ll probably consider that when I need a power brick, open frame/DIN rail supply or LED current driver.

Another big name on show was National Instruments. Always some quality gear showing, but this time, I was most intrigued by their all-in-one Virtualbench that combined multiple analog channel oscilloscope, digital logic analyzer with a load of channels, digital I/O, waveform generator, power supply and digital multimeter with USB and wireless connectivity at a reasonable price (or so I’m told). Just looking at the digital capabilities makes me smile.

Just nearby, I stopped by Rohde and Schwarz to see their latest. I’ve always stopped in at every CeBIT and SMPTE just to see their products on demo, and they’ve always been impressive. This time is no exception, watching their signal generator produce LTE and UMTS signals simultaneously, and their spectrum analyzer with decoder actually graph out channel utilization in real time, and signal stats (e.g. MER) at a really rapid pace. It was also interesting to see that their equipment is all ready to work with 802.11ad “ultrawideband” style signals as well, which are very challenging to accurately characterize. They also had handheld equipment with wireless connectivity to mobile devices on show as well.

The next guys that caught my eye were Rolec OKW, also enclosure manufacturers. They had a range of enclosures on display, and I was aware of their products having found some samples in a goody bag a while back. It was interesting to see that their standard line of enclosures also includes some rather stylish options which look somewhat similar to a smartphone or an ergonomic remote control. They appeared happy to do customization, and their philosophy was to “give you what you need”, and they said that “every success story starts with an order quantity of one.” I thought that philosophy was a very nice and accommodating one, contrasting with my expectations.

My eyes were then rapidly drawn by a few Enersys Cyclon sealed-lead-acid cells sitting on a bench at the Premier Batteries stand. Everyone knows I love batteries, so it was interesting to see all manner of specialist batteries as well as custom made packs, and rebuilt packs on show as well. I am aware of another major name that deals with re-packing batteries and specialist batteries, but I haven’t dealt with them in years because their prices were becoming less and less competitive. Good to see that there’s another company doing similar work with quality cells – and they’re not far away from me either in Chipping Norton. How I didn’t know about them for all these years will remain a mystery!

Sadly, a row of stalls nearby was for SMD manufacturing and inspection which wasn’t really my area of interest, but right in the corner was Aussie Rechargeable Irons. Anyone who’s ever had to use battery powered irons will probably curse at all the toy irons (8W and less) on the market which are practically good for nothing. Butane irons tend to be “the go” for serious work, but I’ve never been a fan of keeping gas canisters around, filling them up, lighting them and waiting for them to heat up. Of the ones that do work, they’re not particularly modern and are very expensive. These guys were quite impressive, because they had a Lithium-Ion based solution which heats up very rapidly and can solder decently thick 6mm wire with a range of tips down to a fine conical. Both temperature regulated and thermally balanced options are available with a long operating time and low self-discharge. The body of the iron is relatively chunky, but designed out of very tough aluminium. The most inspiring part of the story is that the whole outfit is basically run by two blokes out of Campbelltown with everything done in-house and are supplying even the police force with them. Big respect for those guys for persisting and making it work for them. There’s a lot of work that goes into ensuring quality, and that’s something that’s not always obvious to the end consumer.

I stopped off at Amatek Design, because their large “Embedded Systems” banner caught my eye. Apparently they were demonstrating a rowing machine using the Renesas Synergy platform, which I haven’t heard of, but was very recently launched (last month) and may become another alternative platform for those looking to do IoT or embedded work. They also do embedded design based on customer specifications, which probably helps, for those who are taking their prototypes onto a marketable product.

Just next door, Digilent Technologies and Black Box Consulting were also on show. Digilent Technologies is a familiar name to many students and educators alike, because they produce many lines of FPGA demo boards which are used in education. New boards such as the Nexys Video were on display live-processing an HDMI video stream “passing through” and a Zybo Zynq-7000 that combines ARM and FPGA into one SoC. I was also informed that there were new variants on the ChipKit products as well, with integrated Wi-Fi amongst other features. Black Box is the local distributor who also offers FPGA training courses as well. What I didn’t realize was that Digilent Technologies is now an National Instruments company as well, acquired just after they acquired Ettus Research.

The full list of exhibitors is on ElectroneX’s website.

Conclusion

I had a great time at ElectroneX this year. I spent a lot longer on the floor than I expected, talking to various representatives, sometimes about products and other times sharing experiences openly and at a technical level. The biggest thing I discovered was that there were many local businesses I wasn’t aware of with very niche capabilities and product lines that could source me things which I might one-day need. There are also multinational giants, who are not as unwelcoming of hobbyists and one-off orders as I would have expected based on prior experiences. In previous years, with many of the companies, starting off with the line “I’m just a hobbyist …” would have probably gotten you the cold shoulder. Instead, it seems that companies understand how important the small orders can be – as the representative from OKW said “every success story started with an order quantity of one.” I couldn’t have put it any better. To see that some big names took time out to market to us in Australia made me feel quite honoured.

It wasn’t just the big names, but the local businesses that really inspired. I’m accustomed to the “doom and gloom” of the evaporating electronics industry in Australia – but sometimes seeing the successes shows that with the right mix of persistence and careful research, it is possible to still keep things in Australia, and produce the sort of quality you would ascribe to the “Made in Australia” label. Finding and keeping that niche is all part of the game, and taking the time to ensure quality each step of the way and meeting your consumers needs at an intimate level really shows just how much the companies care.

It was eye opening, as well as a “fortuitous coincidence” to bump into two readers of this blog who spotted me with their ‘eagle eyes’. It was nice having a chat to you both, even if it was a little brief, and good to see that we’re all “floating around” the same interest areas. Aside from that, I also had the chance to talk to some visitors by coincidence and needless to say, I’ve obtained a few contacts and probably a few people to see and have more chats with in the future. It seems that networking works.

If you have an interest in electronics, test equipment, manufacturing, surface mount technology, enclosures, embedded systems, internet-of-things, FPGAs, inspection equipment or anything like that, it could be worth your time to come down to ElectroneX and have a walk around. Registration and entry is free, and can be done on site. Tomorrow is the last day – exhibition is open from 10am to 5pm, otherwise, you’ll have to wait until 2018 when it returns to Sydney.

About lui_gough

I'm a bit of a nut for electronics, computing, photography, radio, satellite and other technical hobbies. Click for more about me!
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