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Configurable Connectors in Mobile Electronics

Today’s market for mobile electronics requires both innovation and very rapid product development cycles. Configurable connectors in mobile electronics may be the answer.

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mobile-electronics-300x300Today’s market for mobile electronics products is fiercely competitive. Product success requires not only creativity and innovation but also an ability to execute very rapid product development cycles.

In many cases, the bulk of development attention goes into the functional units that directly impact the “selling features,” such as improved processing power, longer battery life, higher resolution displays, and improved software. Establishing or adjusting the interconnection of these functional units is often done late in the development cycle. A race against the clock means decisions are often forced by what is available off-the-shelf. This can lead to compromised designs, which could have been more size- and performance-optimized if connector options were more flexible.

Most internal connectors fall into three main categories:

  • Standard, off-the-shelf
  • Custom variants of off-the-shelf connectors
  • Customizable connectors

Standard connectors, such as mezzanine-style and ZIF connectors, have the advantage of immediate availability in some specific configurations. This option is generally easiest if space is not constrained and the connectors can meet the electrical and reliability requirements of the application. The tradeoff is the restriction of choosing only products available in a catalog.

Custom variants of standard connectors can be product extensions of the off-the-shelf connectors, such as a different pin count, a modified contact design, or the substitution of different materials. Designers can gain some efficiency in space and electrical performance. The tradeoffs are considerable tooling expense, higher unit prices for these “specials,” long re-tool lead times, and limitations on the extent of optimization that is possible.

Customizable connectors utilize innovative manufacturing techniques that are highly flexible with minimal (if any) custom tooling required. With these types of connectors, designers may request a specific thickness, pin count, size, and electrical specification for fully optimized custom connectors in as little as two weeks. This is the best optimization option, which leaves the door open to many additional design revisions as necessary throughout the development process.

While standard connectors historically have been more common, customizable connectors are increasingly being adopted in today’s more advanced mobile products such as laptops, tablets, gaming devices, and portable projectors. This is due to their unique ability to address the market’s evolution towards smaller form factors, quicker product development cycles, and more challenging electrical requirements (more power and higher speeds).

The most common customizable connectors are Z-axis compression-type connectors that utilize a traditional PCB-style, panelized manufacturing process. This manufacturing method enables rapid and low-cost prototyping, yet is inherently scalable to production volumes up to millions of units per month. This method also has a very short design cycle time, making it possible for designers to switch from a standard to a customizable connector midstream if backed into a corner late in the product development cycle. Moreover, the manufacturing process is typically the same for prototypes and production, unlike plastic connectors where machined prototypes can differ significantly from molded production connectors, which can lead to unforeseen issues late in the development cycle.

The innovative manufacturing methods also allow design features that were previously not possible. For example, power delivery and high-speed signaling can be consolidated into a single connector. Connector thickness can be reduced down to 0.28mm. Inner layers can even be added to allow fan-out or different mating footprints on each interface.

Choosing the best connector for your design ultimately comes down to balancing tradeoffs. When unconstrained standard connectors are immediately available, they may be the best choice. However, with configurable connectors now available in the marketplace, it is possible to optimize the form factor, electrical performance, and reliability of your product in a way you never could before – even in today’s environment of extremely rapid development cycles.

Author David Chen is senior director of operations for Neoconix Inc.

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