Electrical contacts are incredibly intricate and complex components – starting with the materials they are made from.
Precious metals like silver and alloys with nickel and tin have to be used to make the best possible contact for the electricity to flow, but they then have to be mounted on base metals such as copper, and brass to act as a heat sink and keep the cost down.
The simplest and cheapest contacts are made by welding a precious metal wire directly onto a base metal component – and it’s ‘precious’ and ‘base’ that gives P&B its name.
Next comes the rivet, but, even the humble rivet may be made from layers of precious and base metals to provide a lower cost alternative to using one made purely from precious metal.
Last, but not least, there’s the “Rolls-Royce” of electrical contacts, made from tape or strip where the precious metal is welded onto or inlaid in the base metal, which is then attached to the component.
Making strip isn’t easy and it is an area where P&B’s Sheffield factory excels.
The 80-employee plant makes strip, tape and rivets for its own use, supplying all three to its larger sister factory in Whitstable and selling them on the open market as a commodity product.
“There can be two, three or four metals on a tape – silver to make the contact, copper for a heat sink and a nickel backing to weld onto the components - and some competitors haven’t the welding technology to produce it,” explains operations director Jonathan Howard.
If making contacts poses technical challenges, the business of forming the finished components and mounting the contacts on them can be equally challenging.
Even something as simple as the business end of a switch for an electric kettle can end up looking like a precision engineered miniature work of geometric abstract art – and then you have to attach the contacts to it.
P&B prides itself on accurate repeatability.
“We offer a full package – including quality assurance and technical backup. In China and the Far East, if a customer has a problem with a product the component manufacturer will tell them to send it back and they will dispatch another half million. But, it’s very difficult if a customer has to call back a product because of a faulty component.
“Our customer has the peace of mind that the first component in a run of one million components will be the same as the last,” says Mr Howard.
In addition to developing its own machines, which can produce almost as many components in a minute that a competitor in the Far East could make in an hour, P&B’s Sheffield factory also ensures a rapid response time and guarantees quality by making its own press tooling – and will make tools for clients and competitors.
“We want to supply the full product, but we will sell anybody the bits and pieces we use to manufacture a finished component,” adds Mr Howard.
The things P&B doesn’t sell are its innovative techniques and in-house developments.
“We keep the knowledge in house. When the Far East starts to catch up, we want to be far out in front,” says Mr Howard.