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Innovation in industrial connectors

With applications from heavy equipment, industrial automation and process control to building and civil engineering, as well as connectors machine tools, machinery and robotics, the market for industrial connectors is dynamic.

"We are seeing significant growth across a variety of sub-sectors, such as marine and undersea, metering and industrial vehicles. It's being driven by the increased use of electronic systems, as well as by the emergence of sophisticated robotics and metering systems," suggests Ben Green, technical and marketing communications manager with Harwin.

As a result, the demands from systems designers are changing.

"Designers are requesting rugged, safe connectors that are easy to assemble, durable and cost effective," explains Giuseppe Lancella, vp sales EMEA, Smiths Connectors.

Cost is certainly an issue, agrees Green. "As connector usage proliferates to service the exponential requirement for sensing and monitoring required by factory automation programmes, cost is very much an issue."

According to Binder's UK managing director David Phillips: "We are experiencing a significant increase in demand for miniaturisation and greater pin density, higher IP ratings and there is certainly a growing demand for mixed power and signal connectors."

In the industrial market connector pitches have shrunk significantly, falling from 2 to 1.25mm, according to Green.

"Another way of maximising space utilisation is to combine the functionality of connectors, combining signal, power and sometimes coax – even opto – into the same package," he suggests.

Phillips says demand is also growing for connectors with a high degree of environmental protection. "Modern electronic systems require equipment that can be used with total confidence in harsh environments. This is also the case in the instrumentation market that has seen a growth of small, sophisticated, hand-held instruments designed for field use."

Design flexibility

Industrial applications require that connector designs can contend with shock, vibration and extreme temperatures.

"Operating conditions must be considered very carefully before a connector is specified," says Green.

As a result, many companies are offering a higher degree of design flexibility.

Smiths Connectors has, for example, developed what it calls the Transformer range, a comprehensive series of high density, modular connectors specifically for power applications.

"We've designed the Transformer range to include a number of new features; the most important being multiple configurations using the same piece parts," says Lancella.

According to Lancella, the modularity of the design enables customers to create their own solution by supplying the elementary components or 'building blocks' of the whole connector.

"It employs a 'do it yourself' system based on the building block principle and has been customised for applications requiring the transmission of very high currents. The connectors use our High Power Contact (HPC) technology; a spring shaped contact made of aluminum or copper that allows for more contact points to reduce overheating and to achieve low mating force during the connection."

This contact technology design is intended to meet the trend towards increased energy levels on electrical and electronic equipment by effectively managing very high current ratings.

An interesting point raised by Philips is that when it comes to interconnect systems the degree of protection quoted is usually based on a mated and locked pair of connectors and does not apply when a connector is unmated for servicing, cleaning or system reconfiguration.

"As a result, the IP rating can be compromised and dirt, water or other liquids can enter the connector, with potentially disastrous consequences. We are seeing growing demand from customers to provide protection when mated, so some systems provide a protective cap," he says.

Binder has developed the Series 770 NCC connector, which features a design that completely closes the contact interface when the connector is unmated.

"At first sight, the NCC does not look like an electrical connector because the contacts in the socket are obscured by an integral sprung cover that closes as the connector is unmated and completely secures the contacts against the ingress of water, dirt and other foreign bodies," explains Phillips.

"We have achieved this by combining special contoured sprung contacts that are mounted inside the wall of the socket and by the depression of the cover. As the central spigot of the mating cable connector depresses the cover, the contacts in the socket close on the annular contacts of the cable connector providing a secure electrical connection."

When the cable connector is unmated, the cover slides forward and opens the contacts before closing the contact area again. This design guarantees more than 5000 mating cycles: significant improvement on many other designs.

The industrial space is broad and, when it comes to heavy outdoor machinery and equipment, there has been a move from mechanical and hydraulic components to electro-technical devices, incorporating sophisticated electronics and telematics systems controlled by computer.

"Such innovation has dictated the increasing need for connectors suitable for use in difficult conditions including high levels of UV, fluctuating temperatures, acid rain, salt spray, ozone and other pollutants, plus being able to withstand high pressure washing," explains Phillips.

Within the industrial sector, this has been particularly prevalent in the agricultural sector where the radical development of equipment, such as tractors and combine harvesters, has seen a huge shift in technology.

"Seeding systems in use today are worlds apart from those used just a few years ago," says Phillips.

"Previously, seed dosage was controlled by the operator via a dial. Today, the tractor has GPS support and a PC, using an intelligent software program, calculates seed requirements and controls output precisely via electrically controlled dispensers, leading to significant efficiencies and greater yields. This and other developments are characteristic for many applications that were hitherto completely devoid of electronic support."

Additional services

So, with more sophisticated equipment being deployed, what impact does that have on the connector in terms of the manufacturing support being offered?

"With more sophisticated equipment being deployed, the connector manufacturer is being asked to move up the supply chain and provide more complete integrated solutions," suggests Phillips.

"Connector designs will need to be more cost effective and provide for greater intelligence," according to Lancella.

Both Phillips and Lancella argue that engineering and manufacturing capability is crucial and companies working in this space need to be able to bring added value and total system design services – not just supplying connectors, cable assemblies and box-build, but also complete electronic product solutions integrating components of all types. Companies will have to consider addressing product design and development, engineering and tool manufacture, in-house manufacturing capability and product assembly right through to product testing and evaluation.

"This level of service will benefit customers both large and small by providing a high level of design and manufacturing support for bespoke connectors and other interconnect solutions from initial design through the development process and on to product planning and through to volume production," explains Phillips.

"Component manufacturers will need to learn to provide more than just components," he concludes.

Author
Neil Tyler

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