Electrical connectors have come a long way over the years in providing an all-in-one component that ties multiple contacts into an individual plug-in connection. These connectors house Lego-block style modules into a single, safe, and foolproof component that fits in the palm of your hand.
Two of the overarching reasons that characterize this evolution are: 1) They have evolved beyond electrical power as market forces have driven the need for simple customization and wide range of connectivity; and 2) These advanced connectors can handle up to 430 amps reliably for the service life of the components they connect – even when mated up to 100,000 cycles. The most advanced modular connectors encompass:
- Data transmission including ethernet such as 10 Gigabit, fiber optic, and coaxial
- Signal contacts for equipment controls, test connections, or high voltage interlock loops
- Leak-free couplers for fluids and gases (to 15 bar) pneumatic fluids, compressed air, and water-based solutions
There are various modules, housings, and options available. Some will be discussed below. In many cases, these connectors must withstand extreme temperatures, shock/vibration, moisture, and other harsh environmental conditions for critical connections that cannot fail. If you are not already working with modular connectors, this brief video will show you an example of how one is assembled:
The above video demonstrates the CombiTac direqt product, which is rated to 350 amps / 1 kilovolt, and 10,000 mating cycles. It’s very similar to its more general-purpose product called the uniq, which is rated to 300 amps / 5 kilovolts and 100,000 mating cycles. The custom harsh environment version of uniq is rated up to 430 amps. These are the result of evolution, and stem from the first CombiTac modular electrical connectors that Stäubli introduced more than 20 years ago.
Conquering resistance & misalignment
Misalignment and electrical resistance issues have plagued the effectiveness of connectors for years. Today, the most advanced connectors offer self-guiding alignment using housings that guarantee proper mating and prevent problems such as reverse polarity.
Being “plugged-in” correctly isn’t enough. For secure and reliable contact within modules, a patented innovation called MultiLAM technology ensures maximum power transmission with the lowest possible electrical resistance where, for instance, traditional pin sockets or flat-surface contact methods cannot. The materials used is also critical, and therefore only gold- or silver-plated contacts should be used for the most reliable contact. Nothing about a high-power connector should ever be considered “low end.”
Success stories: 30% performance bump, and more
Companies using today’s most advanced connectors report success tackling many related challenges and in many industries. These include: global automobile manufacturers, aerospace and defense, automation, test & measurement, medical and healthcare, rail & transportation, e-mobility & logistics, and OEM equipment and systems across industries. Here are a few examples based on experiences with the CombiTAC line:
Electric vehicle battery systems: Akasol, based in Germany, produces modular batteries for electric cars, ships, trains, and more. The OEM’s choice in connectors resulted in a 30-percent increase in performance; simplified purchasing with a single connector as opposed to many more on a system’s bill of materials; and faster, safer battery maintenance. Technicians now have a single connector to unplug, which turns off live power. Here’s a video showing Akasol’s operation and the modular connector they custom configured:
Automated AGVs for warehouse fulfilment: IAM Robotics recently sought to update its material handling robots and automated guided vehicles (AGVs) with connectors better able to handle years of frequent battery changes (mating cycles) in its customers’ warehouses and distribution centers. In a recent case study, Vladimir Altman, IAM co-founder, cited the unreliability of off-the-shelf commercial connectors, instead using CombiTAC UniqTM, saying: “Anything else I could use would cost me a lot more.”
Electric vehicles: Silence Urban mobility, known across Europe for its vision of modern, urban “eco-mobility,” produces electric scooters for fleet customers in such as delivery services and police forces. Modular connectors were integral (literally) for the company’s patented extractable battery system that eliminates the issue of spotty charging station coverage. (Click here to see a video of this application.)
E-mobility: PSA Singapore’s new mega-port, the world’s largest container transshipment hub is implementing its AGV fleet with automatic rapid-charging and automated hot-swap battery exchanges that use modular connectors for quick changes across ongoing operations. (Click here to see a video of this application.)
Mining equipment electrification: Some OEMs may have a market opportunity so new that they partner to create a new kind of connector. Global technology company ABB is now collaborating with Stäubli for a new solution for mine electrification to reduce costs and greenhouse gas emissions associated with heavy equipment and battery-powered vehicles for zero-emission mining operations. (Click for more information.)
Test & measurement: An electric vehicle (EV) charging tester required a connector for medium- and high-power combinations; expansion options; a protective cover and drop protection for the cable assembly; and protection from dirt and water for outdoor use. The solution included modules for One user configured a connector with a 350A circuit and additional 120A circuit; protective IP2X power contacts; a IP67 Housing; and Last Mate First Break Monitoring (High Voltage Interlock) module for safe, reliable power, signal integrity, and data transmission across EV and autonomous vehicle manufacturing processes.
Medical devices: Modular connectors are instrumental for life-saving surgical units, diagnostic devices, and more. One medtech OEM’s rapid acoustic pulse machine configured an all-in-one connector for a detachable probe/connector to include coaxial connectors for high-power pulsed current; no-leak couplings for saline solution; and leak-proofing for washdown/sterilization procedures, all in a single IP68/69K housing.
Passenger ships: The Brno Reservoir in Czech Republic, started using battery-powered ships since 1946, and embarked on a recent modernization project to better handle an annual 245,000 passengers. The latest generation of 16-barrel single-pole industrial connectors with IP68 and IP69 protection plays role in providing safe, nightly charging to provide each ship with power for up to 100 km of travel the next day.
Getting started: Online configurator speeds design
The latest development for achieving the perfect modular multi-connector is found in a software innovation, in the form of an online configurator. This is an application that speeds the process of selecting the right connector housing and all modules. Engineers can combine modules using graphics, with embedded data sheets, for all components including power, high voltage, signal, monitoring contacts, data, coaxial, thermocouple, fiber optic, fluid & pneumatics, along with a full range of accessories and options, down to cable harnesses and boreholes. To see how it works, you can view this video:
The configurator presents 3D models to engineers and once a connector is complete (or saved as a proposed product), the software generates a unique part number for ordering, pre-assembly, and shipment. This process is usually done in real-time with a sales engineer. However, anyone can visit the configurator page and create a connector that can be saved for further evaluation.
About the author
David Marak is the head of sales for the modular connector group at Stäubli Electrical Connectors, North America. He leads the team that helps people find custom solutions in the growing high-power market. He holds a degree in mechanical engineering and has more than 10 years of experience working with electronic manufacturing, automation, and robotics specialists. You can reach David via email at [email protected] or by calling him in the US at (707) 838-0530.