New applications drive interconnect development

DN Staff

November 18, 2002

6 Min Read
New applications drive interconnect development

Daniel Nigg has been in the electronics industry for 25 years. A native of Basel, Switzerland, he holds a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering. Before joining Lumberg, Nigg was president, European Operations, and board member at Dynisco Europe, a manufacturer of process control products. Previously, he spent 14 years at connector manufacturer Molex, where his career included overseas assignments in the UK and Germany and awarding of several U.S. patents for connector systems design. He began his career at Plessey in London, UK and moved to the U.S. in 1977.

Interconnect design engineers are being squeezed by pressure to cut costs while developing connector and cable systems faster than ever for demanding new uses. Add to the mix an international market where knowing customer needs and preferences can make or break a product.

Design News: What are the major technology trends you are seeing in the international connector industry?

Nigg: One is OEMs continuing to outsource to contract manufacturers. It's estimated that today over 20% of worldwide electronics production is outsourced. Initially developed by the computer industry in the '90's, the outsourcing practice is now being used successfully by many industries. While the initial concept was directed towards actual manufacturing of products, the process has since migrated to encompass lowest cost, global scale manufacturing, and control of the entire supply chain. Representing considerable new challenges for the engineering community the next logical step in the process would be outsourcing of design work.

Another trend is taking more cost out of products. This is forcing connector companies to either operate in, or have direct access to, low-cost labor markets such as China, the Caribbean or Eastern Europe. With rising demand for products from these low-cost regions, labor costs will eventually and gradually rise (as happened with Mexico) and create a renewed demand for yet another, lower cost area for manufacturing - perhaps in India or Africa.

Driven by globalization and technological advances, connector manufacturers have enjoyed annual growth for many years. Hundreds of companies, from large public worldwide powerhouses, to small private and local niche players, share the global connector and cable assembly markets.

Q: What factors are driving these trends?

A: "New technology" remains the key driver behind new interconnect systems and solutions. For example, telematics-a combination of wireless communications, GPS technology, on-board computing and entertainment will finally re-define how we will be using our cars in the future. Adoption of these new technologies will again spur new engineering developments in areas such as sensing, tracking, and analysis of traffic movement and routing.

Our lifestyles will continue to be affected by broad availability of high-speed Internet access, mobility in computing, multimedia and our accelerating "need to stay connected." We have already moved our office to the home-and the car-thus creating a need for improved structured wiring in both commercial and residential buildings. Our never- ending demand to be able to transmit more data faster will continue to push the bandwidth envelope in telecommunications.

Q: What technology breakthroughs do you see in the next five years?

A: Introduction of fuel-cell technology for automotive and other industries in the next few years is expected to have a profound effect on efficiency of power generation as well as on our environment. Fuel cells can generate electricity much more efficiently than combustion processes, and are expected to replace battery technology in many applications, ranging from automotive to consumer products. This technology will create new opportunities for connectors, interconnect systems, and cable assemblies.

Q: What are the greatest challenges facing interconnect design engineers and their customers?

A: Our world is getting smaller - customers, suppliers, and service centers are global activities. Today, no market or industry is shielded from the availability of instant information for products and services from around the world. In this light, speed of "product to market" remains a key driver in this highly competitive environment. Engineers must themselves be well connected to their counter parts in other regions of the world. A strong sense and understanding of cross-cultural differences, coupled with regular communication, will offer a solid basis for effective design engineering in today's difficult environment.

Q: Are any specific design considerations needed for interconnects that include both fiber optics and copper?

A: We must differentiate between board-level connectors and cable assemblies. Copper board-level connector components are traditionally fixed to the PCB by means of a soldering process. Depending on the physical size of the component, additional hold-down features may be employed, such as solder tabs and mounting screws. In comparing fiber-optic and copper connector interfaces, the copper side is far less critical in terms of contact alignment than a fiber-optic system, where performance is directly affected by the alignment of two mating parts. Especially in dual-system connector designs, special consideration should also be given to component temperature compatibility as well as the effects of tolerances.

Q: What are the issues with and prospects for Ethernet on the shop floor?

A: Today's factory automation has embraced Ethernet as a viable communications protocol. Although by far not the fastest system available on the market, a shielded Ethernet system offers safe and reliable data transmission, even in a harsh factory environment. New communication infrastructures are being deployed that use Web-based remote access for process control. This means more data are becoming available faster, creating more knowledge and opportunity for analysis. The result is a better understanding of processes overall.

Advances in wireless sensing technology may give Ethernet a run for the money, because factory automation can represent some of the harshest environments to which industrial connectivity components are exposed. These include noise, temperature, humidity, dust, vibration, and aggressive coolants.

Q: What are the major differences/similarities in industrial automation and data com/electronics interconnect needs?

A: The biggest difference is dictated by the environment in which interconnect systems will operate. With the need for higher speed on the factory floor the gap is rapidly closing between industrial automation and electronic interconnect systems. Industrial PC's, PLCs, and smart displays are computer systems that operate in today's factory environments. These devices make extensive use of existing data communications interconnect components such as USB, IEEE 1394 and Ethernet to connect to a network. There are however opportunities for connector companies to develop interconnect systems to meet specific industrial application needs, such as the Lumberg family of Industrial Ethernet connectors which were specifically designed based on the industry-proven MICRO M12 interconnects for harsh factory environments.

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