A Follower Now, a Leader Tomorrow?
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In the connector industry, “technology” is often discussed interchangeably with the term “engineering,” in relation to development, product, manufacturing, and application engineering. Connector companies employ varying degrees of these very different engineering disciplines, and many also have suites of proprietary technology, some of which are living off the fruits of one or two unique, patented technologies. But few connector companies today are investing heavily in basic research. Instead, they focus energies at the component level, and late in the equipment design cycle, tending to follow their customers’ lead, instead of leading their customers forward. Exceptions exist in areas of specific core technologies, such as contact physics, metallurgy, and fiber optics, where research has been concentrating in recent years.
Key question in the modern industry has become financial payback: How can companies balance costly R&D investments against shifting technology directions? A problem is that connector companies rarely control the end product, and must follow OEM product and technology direction.
At the OEM level, IBM for years was considered the leader in technology and basic R&D. They developed many of the new technologies now used by the industry. Examples include the IBM PC, MS-DOS operating system, magnetic hard disks, microprocessors, multilayer, printed circuit-board technology, etc. Others, like Intel, do groundbreaking basic research, as do many startups. Hundreds of universities, federal labs, and independent research institutes do their part, with funding from industry and government.
This research finds its ways into the connector industry via outside developments, compelling interconnect/electronic circuit applications, materials technology developments, alloys, plating, injection molding, electronic design automation, and manufacturing technologies. Connector companies absorb these developments and adapt them to their own use, while focusing on relatively short-term business opportunities. The industry is not the esoteric developer of new technology breakthroughs. Individual companies do have proprietary methods, but the end product is typically near term, cost-justified, with multiple source competition, and often with industry-wide standards. Key is the effectiveness of implementation and market presence.
Connectors are assembled from many different plastic, metal, and other materials. Thus, it might be said that connector technology is the ability to fuse multiple parts into a complex, often sub-miniature interconnect product, designed for high volume manufacturing. The industry uses a vast array of materials and design tools to develop and manufacture standard and custom interconnect products.
Business Cycle Impact on Technology
The connector market came booming back in 2010 with double-digit growth over 2009. Yet, overall economic recovery remains fragile on several fronts and reflects a decade-long cyclicality affecting the entire industry. On this point, the industry has shown a great deal of resilience, continuing to develop new products for use on a global scale. But business cycles do impact technology development, particularly if, as we suspect, the industry is showing signs of maturing.
Core and New Technologies of the Connector Industry
- Metallurgy as it relates to lead frames, contacts, and housings
- Plating technology, particularly selective, spot, and non-precious metal plating
- Contact physics and mechanics
- Materials technology application and developments
- Injection molding processes — pushed to the limits of connector miniaturization
- Connector design for assembly: thru-hole, surface-mount, and automation
- Cu Connector design for low-labor-cost, bench-type assembly, and for automation
- Test technologies
- Fiber optic connector design, including active circuitry
- Computer-aided connector design, modeling, and simulation for high-speed/high-performance
- All above applied to military/aerospace applications
- Cross-linking technologies: PC boards, circuit design, cable assemblies
- Electronic Industry Technology Shifts Impacting Connector Technology Portfolios
- Environmental technologies and regulations
- Nano materials technology developments
- Next-generation active circuitry in value-added interconnect systems
- Emerging SiP integration and semiconductor packaging and interconnect
- IC test and burn-in moving to CSP, flip-chip, and wafer-scale packaging and test
- Micro-fabrication technologies beyond stamp-form processes
- Solid state illumination
- Advanced battery and hybrid/electric vehicle design
- Medical device technology
- MEMS, as it may relate to connector dimensional barriers
Connectors’ Evolutionary Design
Connector design has followed an evolutionary path following the lead of OEMs. Massive outsourcing to contract manufacturers will change the way connector companies interact with their customers on RD&E. This shift complicates the R&D equation, but may also offer connector companies a new level of freedom to innovate, or to become of greater value to EMS firms not known for their R&D prowess. INEMI.org sees the shift to contract manufacturing as an issue in critical R&D needs: EMS and ODM firms have thin margins that curtail R&D expenditures. One obvious solution is to leverage component and materials suppliers for help in R&D, assuming they have that capability.
With design limits to conventional discrete connectors in speed, bandwidth, size, and density, connectors have a somewhat predictable design path in conventional macro-micro electronic circuitry. The big surprises were how much copper performance improved — and the modeling regimes that enabled it. The next level will require 40Gb/s signal integrity, and micro-interconnects at sub-100ɥm interconnect levels. In the meantime, pressure will continue for smaller, thinner, finer pitch, and the ability to handle ever-higher circuit performance. 40Gb/s is achievable with copper circuitry, with some improvements or new active connector designs. Some applications may require new Z-Axis contact designs. When chip-level lightwave systems are is perfected, fiber optic circuitry will expand in datacom applications.
Serial interconnects have replaced higher pin counts parallel interfaces. The latest examples are USB 3.0, which has a throughput of 4.8Gb/s, 10X 2.0, and DisplayPort/Thunderbolt at greater than 10Gb/s — right behind the USB-3 release. This speed phenomenon, enabled by Si signal conditioning and good connector design, will continue to extend the life of copper circuits and delay a major takeover by fiber, except in long haul, where it has already happened. But intra-equipment fiber optic applications are on the rise (e.g. fixed active FO cable assemblies, backplanes) and will become more important in the next decade.
Copper backplane designs will achieve 40Gb/s capability, matching the limits of current silicon chip designs. Improvements in thin flexible circuitry, 3D packaging, and printed electronics will enable highly packed smartphones and other handheld devices. 3D packaging will give and take away from connectors. It will give us new applications for dense, subminiature connectors. It will take away with further circuit integration and the possibility of eliminating some major socket applications (DIMM, CPU). Advances in electronic packaging, including stacked-die and through-via interconnect of thinned die, will continue adding to the suspense about future connector applications.
Changing Equipment Markets
Key industries are experiencing historic technologic upheavals, resulting in challenges and opportunities. Here are a few areas of anticipated change:
- Semiconductors: Beyond Moore’s Law to emerging research devices and new packaging/interconnect regimes
- Consumer, Computer, and Telecom Electronics: Convergence of telecom, datacom, computer, and web TV; personal communications, tablet upheaval, post-PC generation products, cloud computing, virtual servers, solid-state memory, and electronification of the publishing and entertainment industries
- Automotive Sea Change: Shift to high CAFE ICE and PHEV/EV enabling electronics
- Emerging Industries: Photovoltaics, LED lighting, electro-medical devices, embedded computing everywhere, nano-materials breakthroughs
New Technology/Application-Driven Products of Note
QSFP+ Quad Small Form Factor Pluggable Connectors and Cables
10-40Gb/s, 4-channel copper, and fiber optic active-passive connectors/cable assemblies for high-speed pluggable applications, including switches, routers, host bus adapters, and high-performance computing supporting serial attached SCSI, 40Ge, and 20/40G Infiniband. Suppliers include Amphenol, Molex, TE, and Siemon.
Compact, High Power Connectors, up to 80A/Blade, 600V for HPCC Applications
The Molex EXTreme Guardian header and cable connector (shown at right) features CL spacing that equals 11.0mm for high-end server applications. Similar products are available from TE Connectivity, FCI, and others. These are commonly used in HPCC power supplies.
Newest High Speed Backplane Connectors
These highly sophisticated high-speed connectors are designed by Amphenol TCS (XCede-Orthogonal), FCI (AirMax VSe, shown at right), TE (Strada Whisper), Molex (Impact), and others, which provide 10-25 Gb/s and >100 signals/inch in backplane and orthogonal applications. This is perhaps the last step before optical backplane systems. Applications include telecommunications, mid-range, and high-end servers, mass data storage, and other mission-critical applications.
Advances in Environmentally Friendly Connector Materials Technology
There are many examples of this since the advent of environmental regulations, from lead-free solders to halogen-free plastics. A recent example is Molex BioPlastic Resin Stac64-e automotive connector. It has received Environmental Claims Validation (ECV). Stac64-e contains 71% bio-based content in accordance with ASTM D6866-11. Constructed of resin derived from renewable plant-based castor oil, the Stac64-e harness connector provides an alternative to traditional petroleum-based connectors while offering equivalent performance and quality characteristics.
USB 3.0 Connector System: 4.8Gb/s
Since 1998, the USB connector system has added new versions, sizes, and applications. USB has become one of the most successful connector standards of all time, with 12-15 billion units produced to date, and later versions transmitting signal and power.
USB 3.0 is 10X the 480Mb/s speed of USB 2.0. It is first being used with external hard drives, flash drives, and other high-speed bus interface products. Intel Series 7 and C216 chip sets support USB 3.0 and 3.0 is supported by other chip manufacturers.
The new UltraBook PCs being released this year have on average one USB 3.0 port and two USB 2.0 ports. USB On-the-Go 3.0 allows peripheral devices to talk when a PC is not present.
USB’s success results from wide industry acceptance, excellent performance, design-for-manufacturability, and simple user-friendly ergonomics. It is one case where a connector product has been universally recognized around the world.
LightPeak/Thunderbolt Connector and Cables
Intel’s Thunderbolt enhanced the Apple DisplayPort monitor interface in 2011, providing 10Gb/s, seven-device daisy chaining, and high performance by combining PCIe and DisplayPort into a high-speed serial bus. The connector is now being offered to the PC market. Originally conceived as an optical technology, Thunderbolt switched to electrical connections to reduce costs and to supply up to 10 watts of power to connected devices. Thunderbolt has the potential to compete with USB, although at a higher price.
HDMI Multimedia Interface Connector
Like USB, an industry users group promulgated HDMI: HDMIForum.org. It is not a new product, but many of its applications are. HDMI has become the defacto-standard multimedia video interface for video equipment, and has found application in notebook computers, monitors, DVRs, and other equipment. In 2012, three billion HDMI-enabled devices will be shipped. HDMI V2.0 will be released in mid-2012. Connectors include Type A 19 pin, B WQUXGA 29 pin, Type C Mini 19 pin, D Micro 19 pin, and E automotive HDMI.
Of course, we also see many adapters (DisplayPort, DVI, HDMI-HDMI adapters/ couplers) and a multitude of cable assemblies taking their place in companies' new product lineups this year. Innovation isn't always the next new thing. Sometimes innovation is making an existing product better.