The Always-On Demands of the Industrial Market
David Weaver from Bulgin discusses the always-on demands of the industrial market and its need for robust connections, looking at how the latest high-power, waterproof, push-pull power connectors can help to meet these needs.
In today’s “always-on” world, there is an ever-increasing need to ensure uninterrupted connectivity in the harshest environments; equipment is expected to operate continuously, with minimal downtime. The demand for robust connections presents a challenge to manufacturers because it requires the production of durable, environmentally sealed connectors capable of withstanding even the most severe conditions.
In the past, equipment was frequently hard-wired, with little emphasis on downtime or the cost of maintenance, often making it necessary to request a service engineer call-out. Although hard-wiring provides a secure connection, its big disadvantage is the length of time it can take to carry out a repair. With the ongoing drive towards reducing equipment downtime while simultaneously reducing maintenance costs, the benefits of modular system design using components secured by “fit-and-forget” connectors are even more evident. The use of easy-to-assemble connectors enables engineers to seamlessly exchange components in need of service or repair without the need for specialist tools or training, minimizing the length of time when the equipment is unavailable for use.
Industrial Market Challenges
Robust and safe solutions are always sought for a broad range of applications, and this has sometimes involved utilizing connectors that may not have been originally designed for that specific environment. Frequently, military-type connectors for use in aircraft or tanks are adopted, due to their rugged, robust construction. Some of these connectors may be environmentally sealed, but are not necessarily intended for the selected end application. For example, aircraft wiring tends to use open harness cable looms with seals around each individual wire or conductor. By comparison, cables are more exposed to the elements in industrial environments, and a cable jacket is used to prevent water or dust from penetrating the cable core or the equipment, as well as prevent damage caused by direct exposure to sunlight. As a consequence, while military connectors have the inherent capabilities needed to meet many demanding applications and are commonly used, they are not entirely suitable as they don’t seal around the cable jacket; additional accessories are required to ensure correct sealing for use in an industrial environment.
Another key requirement for industrial electronics is easy assembly and installation. Frequently, electronic connections are made in the field and this can present difficulties for installation engineers when termination requires contacts to be soldered or crimped, and appropriate tools are not on hand. Furthermore, not all of these connectors were designed as sealed components, and additional accessories may be required to create a fully sealed product. Connectors with push-pull or twist-lock mating mechanisms provide everything necessary to complete a sealed connection and simplify this process considerably, eliminating the need to order a variety of different components, as well as the associated risk of an engineer being unable to terminate a connection due to missing or incorrect parts. Correct cable retention is also essential and is a potential issue when adapting connectors designed for other applications; aircraft cables tend to be cleated, but this may not be the case in an industrial environment where outdoor cables may whip. Tried-and-tested sealing techniques are vital, ensuring the correct level of cable retention and sealing.
Manufacturers have developed a variety of very successful metal and plastic connectors to meet the demands of the industrial electronics market, such as Bulgin’s Buccaneer 6000 Series of power and data connectors and its new range of larger-diameter Buccaneer 7000 Series of compact, environmentally sealed 25A, 600V couplings.
Meeting the Demand for Safe and Secure Connectivity
In the field of industrial electronics, water- and dust-proofing are important considerations for any electrical equipment. As well as the obvious electrical hazards, water, salt water, dust, and particularly cement dust can erode contacts fairly rapidly, quickly rendering an unprotected connector useless. Traditional screw-coupling waterproof connectors are very effective, but may take some time to connect, which can be a major drawback. It can also be difficult to determine how tight the connections need to be to ensure an effective seal is achieved, and successful coupling may be installer-dependent. By contrast, easy-to-use, quick-coupling connectors with a rapid-twist-locking system offer positive feedback, which is ideal for blind or awkward mating situations. A water- and dust-proof seal can be made quickly and easily in less than a quarter of a turn without the need for technical expertise, reducing the potential for operator error.
Fit-and-Forget Connectivity for Diverse Applications
Connectors play an essential role in an incredibly diverse range of applications, including industrial automation, lighting, transportation, and marine leisure. Couplings used for such purposes must withstand considerable stress and, in many cases, also be waterproof. Durability is a prerequisite to avoid unplanned downtime and the Buccaneer Series, for example, is designed with these demanding environments in mind. Rugged, rapid-locking couplings with positive feedback enable a perfect seal to be achieved every time, without the need for technical expertise or specialist tools, providing safe, secure connections that resist penetration of dust or moisture. UV-resistant materials ensure that the connectors can withstand long-term outdoor exposure.
Constant power distribution and process control are essential for industrial automation purposes, as well as for heavy equipment and transportation applications, such as the specialist vehicles used to inspect rail tracks. Another example of a 24-hour, always-on industry is food production, requiring a vast array of electronically controlled equipment, from conveyors, dispensing machines, and ovens with remote monitoring and control connectivity requirements to printers, weighing systems, and product inspection equipment with advanced data capture, transfer, and storage needs. Strict food safety and hygiene standards demand regular cleaning and washdown procedures, creating a need for robust, water- and dust-proof connectors to ensure reliable power, signal, and data transfer.
Temporary lighting and sound systems at concert venues require a secure, stable power supply, relying on durable, waterproof connectors capable of accommodating large cables. This is equally true for architectural lighting and signage. These connectors are also ideal for water features such as fountains, offering a robust mains interface for pumps and underwater lighting. Similarly, for marine applications (typically winches, lighting, and control equipment), connectors must be both waterproof and resistant to salt water corrosion. In these situations, the use of plastic connectors, rather than metal, makes sense.
Rugged and Versatile
One design solution that enables connectors to withstand the harshest environments is a single-piece body construction that meets IP66, IP68, and IP69K standards, which offers rapid, convenient connection to accommodate a broad range of different applications and environments, as well as changes in customer specifications. Body moldings and pin carriers should create a robust interface, preventing damage during coupling and guaranteeing a correctly sealed connection even in situations where access is restricted, giving engineers and product design professionals extended flexibility for an extensive range of applications.
A broad selection of interchangeable plastic and metal connectors is available on the market, enabling a wide variety of different applications to be accommodated. Plastic couplings, manufactured from a blend of PBT (polybutylene terephthalate) and polycarbonate, significantly reduce the risk of moisture accumulation within the connector. They are light and versatile and have the advantage of being less prone to attack by salt water, as well as being comparatively inexpensive. They are also UV-stable, making them ideal for long-term use in outdoor applications. In addition, UL94 V-0-rated self-extinguishing connectors are halogen-free, ensuring that no toxic gases are emitted in the event of a fire.
While cost-effective plastic connectors may be the preferred solution in many situations, other applications require a more robust and rugged material. In cases where electromagnetic compatibility (EMC) is a potential issue, metal connectors are more suitable, because they provide continuation of the cable screen from the cable through to the mating connector and complete the Faraday cage. However, the option to use interchangeable metal and plastic connectors provides maximum flexibility. Customers requiring protection from electromagnetic interference (EMI) may choose to combine a metal connector with the corresponding plastic mating connector, reducing the cost as much as possible. Equally, for some applications a plastic connector may be the ideal solution, yet the cable-mounting half of this interface may need the additional strength of a robust metal connector to ensure it is not damaged in use.
Reliability is a crucial consideration for every industry, since failure of a single connection may result in lengthy downtime and significant revenue losses while the fault is diagnosed and repaired. The use of connectors utilizing tried-and-trusted design techniques will help to ensure trouble-free, fit-and-forget connectivity in the harshest of environments. Design engineers should look for IP66-, IP68-, and IP69K-rated connectors that enable a water- and dust-proof seal to be made quickly and easily, allowing rapid installation, replacement, and maintenance of equipment without the need for specialist tools or expertise. Such connectors are suitable for almost any application, giving customers total confidence in the quality and reliability of their chosen products.
David Weaver is a product manager at Bulgin.