2015 saw great leaps forward in technology, many of which were enabled by developments in connector design and manufacture.
At some point in the future, we may look back at 2015 and recognize it as a year when key technologies came together to enable a continuing series of next-generation products. Bishop & Associates has tracked major advances in data rates, power management, and miniaturization for the past 10 years, but it now appears that rather than incremental improvements, we see a leap in key aspects of electronic design.
In spite of the increasing adverse impact of physics on high-speed copper links, engineers continue to find ways to extend the life of this familiar medium. A continuing series of connector and PCB launch refinements has enabled backplane connectors to blow past the 25Gb/s gatepost to demonstrations of operation at 50+Gb/s. The recently introduced Paladin backplane connector from Amphenol TCS, for instance, is designed to reach up to 56Gb/s. Samtec joined this tier of suppliers by becoming a second source for the FCI ExaMAX backplane connector, and ERNI introduced its upgraded 25Gb ERmet ZDpro series backplane interface. Signal integrity issues associated with channel length can be mitigated through the use of alternatives to traditional backplane architecture. Each of the major backplane connector suppliers, including Amphenol TCS, FCI, Molex, and TE Connectivity now offer midplane, orthogonal midplane, orthogonal direct, and cable configurations.
I/O connectors such as QSFP have evolved to QSFP28 and been clocked at up to 50Gb/s. Internal PCI and SAS applications are being targeted by the new OCuLink connector, which can deliver up to 24Gb/s per lane. This high signal density connector utilizes contacts on 0.5mm centerlines. In some demonstrations, the use of PAM 4 multi-level signaling protocol has enabled this performance, but others have utilized traditional NRZ signaling. PAM 4 is expected to play an increasing role as demand for 40 and 100Gb Ethernets grows. The introduction of the USB 3.0 Type-C connector has solidified its standing in terms of superior bandwidth, density, power delivery, and user-friendliness. Its ability to support multiple signaling protocols may allow it to become the singular I/O interface on laptop and notebook computers.
We saw major advances in optical interfaces as well. Active optical cable assemblies have been broadly accepted where cable lengths exceed the specification or EMI issues threaten signal integrity. The new MXC optic connector features expanded-beam technology, reduced mating force, more predictable loss characteristics, and blind mateablity. Applications will include internal optical links to the I/O panel or the backplane. Mid-board optical transceivers from a host of suppliers have enabled system designers to take high-speed signals off the daughtercard and transmit them optically to the I/O panel or backplane. Omni-Path architecture, currently being rolled out by Intel, is expected to use both copper and fiber internal links to enable the next generation of supercomputers.
High-density subminiature connectors such as the Z-Ray ultra low-profile interposer from Samtec can provide up to 1,000 compressive contacts on a 0.80 pitch. As more products become mobile and wearable, demand continues to grow for low-cost, durable, flexible, and lightweight interconnects.
Additional performance bottlenecks are being eliminated by advances in 3D chip fabrication technology. New HBM DRAM memory features greater capacity, data transfer rates, and reduced power consumption in a high-density package. New memory-hungry applications will take advantage of the reduced cost of flash and DRAM memory options. Advances in materials and battery chemistry will double the performance life of mobile consumer products. In some cases, battery life will be longer than the expected useful life of the product.
There are a number of market drivers that are behind the development of these advanced interconnects. The Internet of Things promises to connect billions of devices, opening entirely new applications, especially in embedded and industrial applications. The trend of moving medical diagnostic and monitoring devices out of the hospital and clinic and into the home is driving growth in consumer-grade equipment that meets FDA requirements. The market for remote-controlled drones is set to explode. Consumer products will remain cost-sensitive, but commercial drones used in land management, news video, rescue, police surveillance, and even parcel delivery will require a variety of reliable connectors that can survive harsh environments.
Robotic devices of all types are now being adapted to work among humans and are finding applications well beyond the production line. Wearable electronics are already well into a growth curve with many new devices in the development pipeline. Near-field communications between devices enable instant syncing and will expand well beyond transaction payment systems, as will wireless charging devices. Automotive transportation is already one of the fastest growing markets for connectors. Autonomous vehicles are now in development at nearly all global manufacturers and will incorporate a wide range of ruggedized, high-speed, low-cost, but reliable connectors. Connector growth in each of these application segments bodes well for the future of the connector industry.
The connector industry is rapidly adapting to meet these emerging requirements. Major suppliers have been busy acquiring companies that have specific product or technology expertise required by these new products. TE Connectivity has expanded it sensor product line, while several other manufacturers have absorbed semiconductor or fiber optic component suppliers. Company consolidation within the industry also continues as FCI was acquired by Amphenol. Last year Molex was bought by Koch Industries.
Given the many unknowns we are looking at in 2016, including global unrest, presidential elections in the US, and economic conditions, especially in China, it is hard to predict what to expect in the new year. One thing is clear: The technological and product developments achieved in 2015 will provide the migration path for several generations of new electronic products well into the future. Interconnect systems that support these products will thrive.