Does using 'standard' connectors reduce design advantage or increase flexibility?

4 mins read

Connectors are not the glamorous end of the market. They are expected to do what it says on the tin rather than be responsible for adding much value.

But it is the device that carries your precious signal from one device to the next, or one part of a device to another. You wouldn't take a baby on a car journey without a properly fitted baby seat that was the right size for your baby and the right size for your car! Choosing the right connector is critical. "A good connector choice will not add anything to a system, but a bad connector choice will kill it." That is the view of David Givens, Standards Director and Development Manager at Samtec. What is more is that the industry has changed, resulting in a loss of connector expertise at the OEM. "The electronics industry has changed," stated Givens "It used to be full of huge companies that were vertically integrated in an economic sense, because they made at all of the stuff themselves. Everything became a core competence. But that is not the way it is any more. Companies have a specialty, and then they become integrators. People don't want to make everything down to the software and the silicon. So that makes them systems integrators. And that means they're going to have to connect stuff. Stuff that comes from all sorts of different people. And interconnect standards are the only way they are able to pull that off." Givens claims even the most sophisticated design teams don't have connection as a core competency. "They really know their stuff, but they still come to connect companies for the expertise – they use the connector industry as a sanity check." Reliability and size The questions these designers now pose have changed. 3M, for example, has made touch screen sensor technology one of its core competencies and is looking at a multitude of sensor technologies going forward. "And what you need to back this up is good signal management," commented the company's EMEA Sales Manager, Systems and Components Electronics Solutions Division., Adrian Hymer. "That is one of the areas that is driving connector performance. It is not all about speed and bandwidth any more, it is about reliability as well. "There are a lot of standards that do define the performance in use like DIN 41612, or capability like Hard Metric. Different manufacturers can approach meeting the spec in different ways, but you still have an assurance level, no matter who you choose to use, that the product has been tested and will perform at the baseline industry standard. Some may be better if that is what you are looking for, some creep in just over the standard. But at the end of the day our competitive advantage, and our competitors competitive advantage is how well we make our products and our customers perception of how well we make our products." Hymer pointed out that when gold prices go through the roof people look for other platings like Palladium Nickel. By definition it cannot comply with the gold standard, but in terms of mating cycles, which is the core parameter of the standard, it can be better. While durability has become critical for input/output applications, Givens sees another driver for connections 'inside the box'. It is a scale thing, what is happening now is all about the size," he claimed. "It has driven us to using connectors that we would never have dreamed of using before, because small connectors mean small pins and that is bad. The smaller they are the more fragile they are. The industry has got very good at going fast, but to go fast and stay small that is a pain in neck. If you put connector pins closer together, they induce signals into the adjacent pins – you get crosstalk. So it is not the performance that is driving the specification of connectors it is the size. " With these sometimes conflicting pressures of speed and bandwidth alongside size and reliability, what are the standard connector options that designers can use? According to Givens connector standards can broadly be grouped into four categories: de facto, industry, corporate and open standards. De facto standards may not have a formal specification but have gained acceptance purely down to their market acceptance – the RCA jack is an example of this. Industry standards do have formal specifications but may be lead by a company with vested interests, while corporate (or proprietary) standards have been lead by a company that has sufficient impact and volume that their connector of choice becomes widely used. And open standards are set by a group or committee and are open to everyone, theoretically with no commercial advantage to any one supplier. 'Non standard' standards This range of non-standard standards does not always provide a good starting point says Hymer: "I think engineers start on the premise that they would like to start with a standard because that means that they have choices. So they start with a standard connector in their head and it is only when they start to apply it to their application, their specific need or if they are trying to differentiate themselves, that they start to think outside that standard." However, Hymer has faith in designers to come up with solutions to what might appear to be an over-loaded standard connector. "Engineers come up with clever ways of allocating signals to different pins to optimise the speed they can get, maybe part of the connector driving high speed and part driving low speed. So by using ingenuity and a standard connector it has been formatted to meet requirements." Standard connectors offer the engineer choice of supplier and associated cost benefits and supply security. Hymer said: "What is happening is that all the big OEMs look for a second source for any product they want to buy. Obviously if they can buy an industry standard off the shelf product then they can have a choice of eight or ten suppliers." Givens added: "If you consider that an average electronic system's costs are 18 to 20% down to the interconnection, it is both a prominent role and a critical role." The industries efforts to provide standardisation has been essential. He said: "Getting competitors to work together, when you would normally not get them to share a parking space, is a necessity. In this case, the mutual benefit so far outweighs the option of not working together, it is inconceivable that we would not do it." Asked for a single piece of advice for designers when thinking about connection systems Givens responded that they should not leave the connector until last and also to have a bit of flexibility in the design process."It should be an iterative process. People became complacent, they went through the design process from general to specifics, and from start to finish and then looked at the connector. If it takes a year to design that connector it might be time they don't have. If they had looked at it at the start then they could have had time. So rather than have one pass, go through that loop three or four times and then I think what would happen is you start looking at things in the middle of the process that might have longer development cycles, rather than save them to the end."