26-04-2016 | | By Martin Keenan
The Internet of Things (IoT) is proceeding at a relentless pace, prompting new applications, form factors and technologies. Here are five ways that IoT applications are driving technological innovation in the world of connectors.
All of those billions of connected devices communicating with each other via the Internet are already starting to put a huge strain on Internet infrastructure. Servers and data centres are faced with handling volumes of data that are growing exponentially and the result is increased demands on both capacity and speed.
New interconnection technologies are being introduced into the high-end data centre and server markets to try and meet this demand. Several manufacturers are promoting chip-to-chip communications using either high-speed micro coax copper cables or multi-mode optical fibre for a fast, direct link between devices.
The idea is to bypass the bottleneck presented by copper PCB tracks on densely populated boards. Specialist connectors are required to connect the flyover cable to the devices – they have to demonstrate an extremely high performance, be as compact as possible, and some even require their own integrated heat sinks.
The miniaturisation trend isn’t exactly new. The evolution of the IoT is taking it one step further though whereby yesterday’s portable devices have become today’s wearables, in even smaller form factors.
All these devices include wireless connectivity, and the resulting demand for smaller RF connectors is proving to be a challenge.
Power connectors are reducing in size too, as new materials are developed which allow more current to flow through smaller contacts. This helps reduce the connector’s overall size, improving circuit density.
One segment of the IoT with particular scope for connector miniaturisation is industrial automation and process control. Manufacturers are trying to make it easier to add connectivity to industrial devices by reducing the area and weight that these connectivity systems require.
One interesting technique that manufacturers have been using to reduce the board space dedicated to interconnection is to combine or stack different types of connectors that are typically used in similar systems.
For example, several have introduced combined SIM card and SD memory card reader connectors. Combining these two connectors into one housing appears to be a good idea – they are both relatively low profile so they can be stacked without adding much height. This way, the board gains additional area equivalent to the footprint of the (smaller) SIM card connector. In this event the density can be increased, or the board space can be used to add extra functionality to the design. Either way, it’s a winner.
For example, ISO 60601 is a series of technical standards for the safety of medical electrical equipment, which applies to connectors.
With safety as the key word, new medical connector designs focus on things such as preventing the wrong connectors being inadvertently mated together. This may include colour schemes, or mechanical keying or coding. Push-pull designs are preferred as these give tactile feedback of proper mating.
Medical devices also place increasingly stringent requirements on quality – for example in an ECG machine, signal integrity is essential because the signals are so small.
Connectors that don’t physically connect may sound counter-intuitive, but there are a number of good reasons to use contactless connectivity. The leading technology in this area is inductive coupled power transfer, as an alternative to using power connectors. Power can be transferred to moving parts in machines without wires hindering their movement. Devices can be connected underwater, with the signals penetrating the water and the devices’ sealed waterproof enclosures. No power sockets means devices are easier to sterilise for medical and clean room use and, conversely, better for use in dirty environments where the sockets would otherwise fill with grime, grease or mud. Furthermore there are no mechanical parts to break, making it very reliable.
A specialist in this area at the moment is TE Connectivity, which devised a concept it calls ARISO. This integrates power coils and an NFC antenna into a very small space. As the IoT continues to introduce all sorts of new applications and places electronic devices in environments they couldn’t be used in before, new concepts like this are a key enabling technology. Tomorrow’s IoT devices may not need connectors at all!
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