Q&A with TE: Contactless Connectivity
Take a closer look at the effects contactless connectivity technology has had on the industry in this Q&A with TE Connectivity.
Q: What market needs drove the development of contactless technology?
A: The need for reliable connections in situations where traditional connectivity reaches its limits due to space restrictions, vibrations, dust, and dirt. In oil and gas, for instance, robotic friction can cause even the smallest arc, which could generate a very costly—or deadly—explosion. And while not life-threatening, using mechanical couplers in harsh environments, such as underwater or within lubricants or coolants, is extremely challenging due to corrosion.
Requirements in the robotics field also drove the development. When a mechanically constructed robotic hand rotates to its fullest extent, it reaches 270°. When returning to the point of origination, it is faster and more efficient to rotate the additional 90° forward. However, due to the mechanical limitations of the cable, it must go back 270°. This process increases production time by a factor of three.
Q: What are the challenges in developing contactless interconnects and how can they be overcome?
A: We invented the ARISO contactless connectivity platform in a very short timeframe. Our team of field engineers, who regularly engage with customers, made it clear that our existing connector solutions could not fulfill every customer need, so we investigated alternative technologies. Developing some type of contactless or wireless solution was a natural path to explore. Whatever the outcome, the answer had to be as reliable as standard wired power and signal—but with wireless flexibility.
We wanted a very reliable and affordable solution that would also be small enough to allow easy integration into customer applications. We studied and compared the attributes of various technologies that could transmit power and signal. Our criteria included size, cost, efficiency, and the ability to transmit over a certain distance. What about harsh and safety-critical environments? Could it transmit through water? Would it minimize or eliminate arcing? Should it penetrate metal? Would background noise interfere with transmission?
Inductive coupled power transfer emerged as the most viable technology since inductively coupled devices can transfer power and data across small distances, without any contact.
Once we had identified the technology, the next challenge was to integrate the power coils and near-field antenna into a very small form factor—and then manufacture it. We solved the potential problem of electromagnetic interference by using RF chips coupled with near-field antennas. We were also able to reduce the total cost of the couplers by building a streamlined solution using fewer components, while improving performance and reliability.
Q: Which applications can benefit most from contactless technology, and why?
A: Contactless connectivity is suitable for all industrial applications in which traditional connectivity has reached its limits due to space restrictions, vibrations, dust, and dirt. It can be implemented in applications where standard connectors and cables could not be used before.
As well as replacing standard connectors, contactless connection technology can be used in place of the slip rings, coiled cables, or drag chains normally employed in applications such as robotics. Due to the high degree of mechanical stress, these components wear out relatively quickly – for a slip ring, an operational lifetime of a year is extremely long. In comparison, contactless connection technology is virtually wear-free. It also permits robot arms to rotate more than 360º, whereas drag chains are normally limited to around 270º.
Q: Is contactless connectivity more expensive than alternative solutions? If so, what would justify the cost of designing-in this technology?
A: Because contactless connectivity platforms can be applied where no other reliable connectivity solutions are available, making cost comparisons is difficult. However, because this technology allows data or power to be transmitted without mechanical contact of any kind, there is a complete absence of wear and tear, reducing the total cost of ownership significantly.
Q: What can a design engineer do with a system design that he couldn’t do before contactless technology?
A: In contrast to conventional connectors, since no physical contact between the components is required with contactless connectivity, there are no constraints on rotation. This gives designers a degree of freedom they have never had before.
There can be a gap of up to 7 millimeters between couplers, making it possible to transmit power through fluids or walls. The couplers don’t need to be precisely aligned with each other – they can be slightly offset or even at an angle of up to 30º. Solutions are possible in which one coupler is stationary and another coupler mobile, attached to tools or work piece holders, for example. Connections are made on-the-fly by currently adjacent pairs, without the traditional mechanical limitations.
Q: Does this technology make any legacy technologies obsolete?
A: Not at this point. Contactless connectivity really comes into its own in applications where traditional connectivity reaches its limits: In harsh environments, such as oil, water, chemicals, dust or vibrations, or wherever unconfined movement currently impacts the reliable delivery of power, data, and signal.
Ulrich Wallenhorst joined TE from medical technology provider B. Braun Melsungen AG where he served as vice president, development active medical devices worldwide. Prior to this, he was CEO of AGRO International GmbH. At TE, he oversees the engineering and product management activities at TE Industrial in addition to leading strategic innovation initiatives.