Miniaturized Circular Connectors Drive New Developments in Portable Electronics
Fast-turn, application-specific connectors can be produced quickly and can even meet stringent military standards when based on existing, standardized connector designs with proven reliability.
Electronic modules in many of today’s application areas must prioritize size and weight reductions and simultaneously provide high-speed transmissions with reliable signal integrity, even in harsh environments, and especially as portable electronics continue to proliferate in various markets. As such, ruggedized micro- and nanominiature connectors are serving more applications with advanced circuit systems that operate on low voltage and use less current. These designs minimize battery storage and power demand and support the development of lightweight, portable electronics equipment.
The ongoing demand for smaller size and lighter-weight portable electronics capable of supporting higher signal speeds is dovetailing with the demand for connectors and cables that can be rapidly redesigned to fit well within unique shapes. In time-sensitive situations where rapid solutions are needed for unique missions, rapid prototyping and testing is available.
New product developers are often in a hurry to realize their designs; however, newer portable electronics designs increasingly require unique pin and socket formats, a variety of pin sizes, and even specialized shell configurations. To comply with military specifications and other stringent standards, design engineers have long been required to use existing, standardized connector designs with proven reliability. These products also support lower costs and shorter design cycles, ensure reliable signal reliability, and provide a reference point for proof of pin-to-socket performance in many of the worst conditions the final product could face.
However, the US Department of Defense (DOD) recently revised the governmental approval process for connector selection to prioritize the acquisition of new circuitry and support the rapid evolution of national defense technologies and designs. The first step in accelerating this process has been a significantly shift toward faster contracting and purchasing processes for the electronics employed in items ranging from aircraft and upgraded land vehicles. The DOD’s new Other Transaction Authority (OTA) agreements are also helping to significantly speed up new designs and shorten delivery times for advanced technologies.
The concept supporting both of these efforts relies on the reference designs for and test performance of established high-reliability electronics while allowing for changes in the form, fit, and function of enabling component and connector designs.
Connector designers and system engineers can use fast-turn design, solid-modeling, direct-linked CNC machinery, and rugged polymers can be quick-molded into insulators. Pre-build products can also be built for review using 3-D molding materials. The 3-D products will be used when military level ruggedness is approved. Customized versions of existing connector designs and assemblies made to meet new size, weight, and shape requirements can be completed in less than four weeks at significantly lower costs than entirely new designs. These adjustments can allow signal and power to be combined in a single connector design for critical space and weight savings and can make it easier to achieve the higher signal speeds that increasingly connected portable electronics demand.
For example, a new high-reliability portable search-and-rescue instrument required a miniature, six-position circular connector that could fit within a 1/8” diameter port. To deliver the robust performance expected for such a high-reliability application, Omnetics used key elements from its MIL-DTL-32139 products to create a new, semi-custom design that qualifies as one of the world’s smallest ruggedized connectors for harsh environment applications that require IP67 protection or other high-performance characteristics.
Nanominiature connectors are often designed into systems that handle digital image transfer, audio, computer data, and even drive current for small motors in robots when size or weight is key. In many such circuits, miniaturized high-speed cable with shielded connections to metal connector housings is also employed to provide EMI protection and ensure the integrity of signal transmissions.
New products like Omentics’ Micro360 circular connectors are leading the way for the downsizing of the older MIL-DTL-38999 connector. This evolution in connector design includes an intermediate step in connector size that is often identified as a micro-miniature 38999 format.
A DOD committee that includes Omnetics is meeting regularly to derive final military specifications for this intermediate size. By comparison, many micro-miniature 38999 connector manufacturers use a size 23 pin contact size that is set at approximately 75 to 76 1/1000” inch pin-to-pin spacing. The Micro360 circular connector is much smaller at .050” (1.27mm) uses size 26 pins in standard layouts. The DOD standards committee is continuing to work on a micro-miniaturized 38999, and meets regularly to complete a universal inter-mate format and extend the field to multiple vendors of the new micro-miniature 38999 design.
Wearable and portable electronics for ground troops often require rugged, highly flexible cabling and ruggedized connectors that can reliably withstand exposure to dirt and dust, splashed water, liquid immersion, UV radiation, and extreme temperatures. Other common design demands include lightweight, mico- and nanominiature form factors, intuitive coupling mechanisms that can be quickly and easily plugged and unplugged and endure many mating cycles, hybrid contact layouts that can carry both power and high-speed data signals, and secure pin-to-socket designs that reliably maintain secure connections even when exposed to shock and vibration. Circular connectors rated to IP67 or IP68 when mated, or available with dust caps for unmated protection, match well with round cabling designed to allow for flexible movement, limit bend stress, and survive the rigors of travel over rough terrain. In addition, designs that utilize beryllium copper (BeCu) spring materials tempered at 17,200ksi and pins and sockets plated with gold over military-quality nickel plating are effective for preventing inadvertent disconnections.
New connector products developed to satisfy these and other challenging design demands are being released to market all the time but generally have higher costs and require longer development cycles, especially for applications that require extensive testing and standards compliance. To achieve lower-cost, faster-turn solutions capable of satisfying the evolving needs of increasingly small, lightweight, and high-speed portable electronics in challenging application areas, product designers can partner with an experienced connector supplier to customize the form, fit, and function of an existing connector product already proven to perform reliably in even harsh-environment applications.
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