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Poor Connector and Cable Choices Cause Failures. Here's how to Avoid That Fate

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Designing a connector and cable integration system requires awareness of key market and technology realities, tradeoffs, and opportunities.

In today’s world of complex and high-speed data devices in communication, automotive harnesses, and industrial equipment networking design, the connectors and cables often determine the overall system performance. But how does an engineer or technician select the correct terminal and connecting hardware for specific environments? What factors should a developer optimize for the system design in high-speed communication, autonomous automotive, and modern industrial applications?

Answering these questions requires a look at the general best practices from professional engineers. For example, consider the application in which the connector and cable must perform. Look at current connectors and cables and what functions they are performing.

Consider regulatory and environmental requirements. Determine how long the cables and connectors are expected to last and in what environments. For example, the product life cycle of HyperScaler data centers (DC) is about three years. Hyperscale computing is necessary for cloud, and big data storage and are often linked with an ultra-high-speed, high fiber count network.

Conversely, the typical life span of an Enterprise DC Quad (4 channel) Small Form Factor Pluggable (QSFP) is around five years. QSFP supports Fiber Channel, Infiniband, Ethernet, Sonet/SDH, and other proprietary interconnects. The noticeable difference from enterprise to hyper scale is the high fiber count utilized across the network.

Another consideration is to decide on the best value and performance connector and cable generation to use. For example, from the above data center connector discussion, one might consider using a QSFP28 versus QSFP56 or QSFP112 or QSFP128 and maybe QSFP224. Confusing, isn’t it?

Designing a connector and cable integration system requires one to be aware of key market and technology realities, tradeoffs, and opportunities. To do this, one should keep up with the latest industry design improvements and certifying requirements like UL working with Open Compute Project (OCP). The combined goal is to further the cooperative development of resiliency, utilization, and efficiency of data center and enterprise technology. According to the press release, the OCP is a collaborative community geared toward reimagining the design of server, storage, networking, and other data center hardware to drive scalable computing through the sharing of information and technical specifications.


On the test side of the development process, it’s a good idea to work closely with electrical and optical ATE test equipment partners and technical community like the latest COM spec with IEEE802.3, QSFP-DD MSA and OSFP MSA. Ensure the Design-For-Test (DFM) strategy early in the development process.

And don’t forget about Plugfests! A plugtest or plugfest is an event where the designers of electronic equipment hardware or software test the interoperability of their products or designs with other manufacturers. Participants plug company A's cable into company B's socket to see if they work in real-world applications.

The technical goal of a plugfest is twofold: check compliance to the standard, and test the effectiveness of the standard. The latter could be the case when the standard is ambiguous. A simplified example is that “the width of a plug is prescribed.”  But vendors use different lengths.

An essential part of any hardware and software standards activity is the demonstration, testing, and verification of critical portions of the specification. Examples of such demonstration activities include the telecom community’s IETF Hackathon and the BBF Interoperability PlugFest, among many others. Without ways to test software security or physically test interoperability between hardware, engineers and product vendors won’t be sure if the new or updated standard specifications will work.

Autonomous Vehicles and Industrial Apps

The drive toward autonomous vehicles has spurred an extended set of connector and cable applications. Modern cars consist of hundreds of sophisticated sensors, signal conditioning circuits, processors, and other electronics connected with cables, wires, and harnesses. These connections required the right kind of connectors to meet high-speed signal and data bandwidth requirements while consuming as little power as possible. Small size and the capability to withstand harsh automotive environments are also needed.

Or how about the world of industrial applications? This market is yet another example of the need to determine and integrate suitable connector and cable combinations for the job. Here, ethernet connectors and cables dominate the market, including iX, IX, M8, M12, RJ45, and .5RJ45 10G Ethernet interconnects.

There’s a lot to know when selecting the suitable connector and cable types for a specific application, from telecom and automotive to industrial systems. If you want to learn how a seasoned professional addresses this task, be sure to join us for the upcoming Design News webinar: “3 Simple Steps to Ensure Your Design Uses the Right Connectors and Cables”.

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Connectors and cables in today's industrial applications.

John Blyler is a Design News senior editor, covering the electronics and advanced manufacturing spaces. With a BS in Engineering Physics and an MS in Electrical Engineering, he has years of hardware-software-network systems experience as an editor and engineer within the advanced manufacturing, IoT and semiconductor industries. John has co-authored books related to system engineering and electronics for IEEE, Wiley, and Elsevier

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