We are in a period of rapid technology development, as designers create new products and instruments with high-speed circuit chips that run faster, last longer, and go places we could not imagine just a few years ago. Often, these products call for original connector designs.
Today’s electronics — equipped with innovative new sensors, detectors, monitors, and communicators — are dominating our businesses, militaries, medical clinics, and daily lives. These products are also inspiring great advancements in connector and component designs. Standard commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) connectors are a great resource for quick prototypes and reference designs and still meet many of today’s application needs. However, as technologies evolve to meet new demands, including higher speeds and smaller sizes, standard connectors don’t always meet the design requirements. In these cases, original connector designs are needed.
Connector modules destined for use in today’s electronics frequently require increased miniaturization, demand less current flow, and must meet new, more challenging form and fit parameters while still delivering as much — if not more — functionality as bigger, older models. Meeting these various demands often requires entirely new connector development.
Wearable tech is one application area in which system demands are pressing designers to generate original connector designs. These small devices require connectors that reduce space and weight while increasing the instrument’s capabilities, portability, and ruggedness. Interconnect systems bear much of the wear and tear in plug-and-play systems that endure multiple disconnect and reconnect cycles as components are interchanged, and both durability and secure connectivity are paramount when cables are draped around a piece of equipment or a person.
The Case for Original Connector Designs
Custom design of micro- and nano-miniature connectors used to be perceived as expensive and painstakingly time-consuming. However, today we have fast-turn solid-modeling, 3-D fabrication equipment, and direct-linked CNC machinery. Now metal or polymer shells and insulators can be made within a day or two, after agreeing on the format. By using existing metal interconnection elements, original connector designs and assemblies can be completed very quickly and at significantly lower cost than before. Many connector companies are staffing rapid-turn prototype laboratories with technical specialists to leverage these new capabilities and satisfy these new interconnect challenges.
It is important to realize that key shifts in chip technology and higher-speed digital design are significantly changing the interconnection world. Much of an interconnect’s electrical performance depends on the cable and wiring methods used. Large-wire analog circuitry has its place, but it’s staying in that place. Meanwhile, the market for smaller-diameter cable made with more flexible cabling materials is booming. In many precision systems, both the cable and connector are designed specifically for that application. For example, in the field of prosthetics, one can now see wires from an ECG-type connector routed to operate a complete robotic hand.
New Connector Development Builds Better Connectors Fast
Today, designers working on new connector developments can specify parameters such as size, weight, and shape before deciding on a product format that will meet the product designer’s needs. Typically, the electrical parameters will pre-determine the size and type of the connector’s pin-and-socket system and cable design. For example, a standard digital signal running at less than 13 volts and using less than 100 milliamps would allow for an original connector design loaded with nano-sized pins and connected to 32-gauge wire.
If high reliability is required, a pin and socket set could be borrowed from those used in military specification connectors that have been accepted as QPL products and deliver field-proven performance. In addition, insulators for new connector development — the inner portion of the connector that contains the pin and socket sets — can often be borrowed from current connector designs.
Newer versions of liquid crystal polymers (LCPs) enable more rugged and temperature-resistant insulator and housing options for miniature and nanominiature connectors than many legacy materials. LCP materials can also accommodate an extensive variety of sizes and shapes to better meet today’s new fit and form demands. New LCP insulators can now be made in soft molds to provide first article components, which allows design engineers to test-out a system much faster than the eight- to 10-week lead-times for new insulator and other component designs that were typical not long ago. Connector housings, unique shell shapes, locking mechanisms, and even backshells can now be quickly machined on linked CNC systems and combined with quick assembly and wire connections to provide rapid prototypes of both original connector designs and corresponding cable assemblies needed for new technologies.
These new processing capabilities make it easy to optimize original connector designs to help reduce size and weight, adhere to specific form and fit parameters, and even improve the functionality of portable electronics. In just two to three days, a new solid model drawing can now be sent to customers for review and, after approval, it generally takes less than three or four weeks to completely assemble a new connector and its corresponding cable harness.
These processes also enable significantly lower costs and faster delivery than the redesign methods of days past. The ability to put solid-model drawings in designers’ hands at the beginning of the connector design process supports quick review and approval and reduces both costs and time-to-market. These precision models also help achieve a very high acceptance rate for original connector designs. Then, after rigorous testing in the actual application, the move to production of higher volumes can begin, just as quickly, hastening the delivery of new technology to markets worldwide.
Like this article? Check out our other Connector Basics, manufacturing, and 2019 articles and our Medical and Mil/Aero Market Pages.
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