Skip the Pins: Contactless Connectors Expand Design Flexibility

By Amy Goetzman | May 14, 2024

Delicate connector pins can be a point of failure. New contactless designs for industrial applications resist wear, damage, and ingress and transmit power and data across open air.

A new wave of contactless connectors is delivering power and signal without pins or contacts. While this concept seems to defy the traditional definition of connectors, which typically interlock with strategically arranged pins or contacts and corresponding sockets, contactless connectors make it possible to design hands-off systems that transmit power and data without the potential for contact wear or damage. Contactless connectors are an emerging solution for robotic systems, consumer applications, battery-powered equipment, and high-reliability markets. They open up new design possibilities, especially for systems that are inaccessible or autonomous.

Traditional connectors with contacts can be delicate; rough handling can result in bent pins, wear to plating, and the introduction of debris that can impair a connection. In systems that require frequent mating and unmating of connectors, there’s a higher risk of contact-related failures and maintenance issues. Contactless connector designs eliminate pin-related concerns.

In harsh environments, clean rooms, or hard-to-access applications, contactless connectors also eliminate risks to equipment or operators; connections can be made without a human’s precise hand to guide the connection into place. As more industries employ battery-driven equipment, contactless connectors are also a solution for battery charging stations for driverless or autonomous equipment; devices can recharge across airspace without physical docking. Contactless designs are available in heavy-duty, industrial connector families as well as miniaturized common connector types such as USBs.

Weidmüller’s FreeCon Contactless connectors have a clean mating face and no spaces for debris to collect. Developed in close collaboration with leading German car manufacturers, they are well-suited to automation and harsh environment applications.

“Contactless connectors are suitable for an extremely wide range of sectors, such as machine construction, robotics, materials handling, and even renewable energy,” said Weidmüeller’s René Hülsmann, product engineer IE. “It can be retrofitted with ease and is thus an appealing solution for existing plants, too. Unlike with conventional energy transmission with plug-in connectors, contactless energy transmission is fully automated and causes no mechanical wear whatsoever. This eliminates the need for time-consuming and costly maintenance work on the contacts, in addition to extending the service life and preventing downtimes. Furthermore, contactless energy transmission opens up completely new opportunities for automation and process optimization.”

These innovative connectors integrate miniaturized radio frequency (RF) transceivers and receivers to enable devices to communicate and exchange data without the need for physical contact between them; connections can even be routed through glass wall, plastic, cardboard, and liquids, and function across distances as far as a meter apart.

Weidmüeller’s contactless connectors were designed into an automatic loading and unloading system for a German manufacturer of freeze dryers. In the system, a robot moves horizontally along a toothed belt and loads the freeze dryer. The stepper motors of the robot drive are supplied with electrical power via rechargeable batteries in a system that includes the FreeCon Contactless connector. The loading device accesses contactless power under cleanroom conditions with wireless control. This application would not be conceivable without contactless charging.

Molex offers three categories of contactless connectors: MX60 USB SuperSpeed for high-vibration and harsh environments, including mobile devices and networking applications; MX60 Gigabit Ethernet for wireless infrastructure, industrial automation, medtech, and networking applications; and MX60 DisplayPort Main and Auxiliary, a high-speed replacement for conventional DisplayPort connectors.

While contactless connectors offer great design potential for industrial applications, they also enable high-density connections to be made in tight spaces in very small applications. “Every piece of real estate counts when designing smartphones, AR/VR glasses, smartwatches, and other consumer devices,” said Walter Rivera, senior manager, Wireless Connectivity Product Manager for the Micro Solutions Business Unit at Molex. “By combining USB2 and other low-speed interfaces in one contactless solution, we will offer product developers a critical head-start as they won’t have to worry about fitting extra components into ever-shrinking form factors.”

Additional flexibility comes from the ability to transmit information without exactly matching mating faces. The primary and secondary sides of the connector can be brought together from any direction and power can even be transmitted when the elements are rotating.

RoProxCon – Contactless Data and Power Transmission from Rosenberger is a proximity connector solution for industrial environments. Rosenberger will offer a webinar on contactless connector solutions on June 24, 2024.

Rosenberger’s contactless connectors can transmit connectivity over an air gap. Eliminating contacts preserves the lifespan of industrial components that typically take on wear from making thousands of connections in a short period of time, such as industrial systems, robotics, and applications in which high mating cycles are ensured over a long period of time, said Johannes Winkler, RF engineer at Rosenberger. “These connectors serve harsh environmental conditions where reliable transmission at high data rates is required, such as camera applications in the process industry. For example, you might have a million mating cycles at robot tool changes in the automotive industry.”

Rosenberger has developed its own proprietary system to transmit the highest possible power with high efficiency. The contactless data transmission is based on 60 GHz radio transmission using the ST60 radio transceiver from STMicroelectronics.

“Together with the patented antenna solution from Rosenberger, it is possible to transmit data in full-duplex mode with simultaneous infinite rotation. This is particularly advantageous in joints, for example, or where a high degree of mechanical flexibility is required. The contactless energy transmission inside the RoProxCon is based on inductive coupling,” said Winkler. “The solution does not require any additional communication channel and is therefore much less complex than other solutions on the market.”

As automation processes proliferate in production environments, contactless connectors offer solutions for new systems as well as upgrades. “We are working on adaptor solutions for common industrial interfaces such as the M8, M12, and single-pair Ethernet,” said Winkler. “This allows us to offer a completely connector-free connection solutions for industrial sector, medical fields, and other high-reliability markets.”

Rosenberger is also expanding its contactless options. “We will go into series production with the RoProxCon Hybrid and SoM this year. However, many of our customers have already received samples,” said Winkler. “They have already been able to see for themselves the advantages of RoProxCon compared to conventional contact-based connector systems.”

To learn more about the companies mentioned in this article, visit the Preferred Supplier pages for Molex,  Rosenberger, and Weidmüller.

Like this article? Check out our other Robotics and Contacts articles, our Industrial Market Page, and our 2024 Article Archives

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Amy Goetzman
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