Electronic Design

Connector And Cable Makers Can’t Stand Pat

The connector market is huge, diversified, and convergent, from consumer to commercial through medical to military and aerospace, all with equally daunting and diverse opportunities for innovation and creativity. In fact, “all markets are ripe for innovation in interconnects,” says Rob Rix, vice president of Industry Marketing, Communication & Industrial Solutions at Tyco Electronics.

In the anatomy of all things electronic, connectors and cables are the veins and arteries, efficiently directing and routing the flow of power, signals, and data. Some current and future concerns include speed, density, size, greater integration, differentiation, and environmental issues.

PLENTY OF ROOM FOR ADVANCES • Connectors, which probably make up the largest portion of the components market, offer plenty of opportunities for innovation. “The increasing level of technology convergence between several markets is driving products with shrinking form factors, a need for better thermal management, and the ability to handle higher speeds overall,” says Brian Krause, vice president of marketing and communications for Molex’s Global Sales and Marketing Division.

Krause sees several sectors as prime targets for advancement in 2009. These include power connectors in terms of higher power and current handling and better airflow management to address thermal and environmental concerns. Also on the table are backplane connectors tooling up for higher speeds, i.e., 10 and 25 Gbits/s per channel, greater channel densities, more robust mechanical features, a more modular approach with power and guidance, and lower crosstalk levels to enable higher speeds with affordable silicon.

“One of the most significant areas of focus are high-speed interconnect systems. Speed thresholds up to 25 Gbits/s require products designed as a system, inclusive of the IC, connector, and cable/PCB (printed-circuit board),” says Rix.

“Improving density is always an area of focus as well as creating sealed and environmentally robust products, an area that is emerging as more important across several industries,” adds Rix. “Also, the elimination of halogen from plastics and REACH (Registration, Evaluation, and Authorization of Chemicals) compliance will be important in 2009.”

On another end of the connector spectrum, Amit Thakar, senior product manager for analog and mixed-signal products at Gennum, looks to integration and differentiation as sources of innovation. “We see an opportunity for cable and connector manufacturers to innovate and differentiate their products by integrating active electronics into their solution, a trend that really began in 2008 but will gain significant momentum in 2009.”

In terms of acceleration, “Both HDMI 1.3 and DisplayPort 1.1 specifications support data rates in excess of 10 Gbits/s. Content and hardware to date has not come close to pushing these limits, with 1080p content running at just under 5 Gbits/s,” says Thakar.

MARKETS SET FOR GROWTH • Given certain economic conditions, it’s somewhat dangerous these days to predict which markets promise to deliver fruits. However, Thakar is quite optimistic. “The current economic downturn is actually an opportunity for the multimedia market. Just last October (2008), the Consumer Electronics Association predicted that holiday sales of flat-panel TVs and other A/V equipment would increase 4.7%,” he says.

Krause sees convergence as key to future developments. “Major companies that have previously served one market are now gaining entrance into other markets and drastically affecting pricing within these markets,” he says. “The medical, military, and industrial markets will have the highest growth percentage over the next several years. However, the consumer electronics market will also continue to grow and flourish, just maybe in different ways than we have seen in the last decade.”

Rix is also optimistic and encompassing, foreseeing growth across all interconnect and cable markets in 2009. “A few examples include lighter-weight cables and connectors for aviation and automobiles, connectors with integrated circuit protection for consumer, or active optical cables for use in the datacenter. We are always looking for opportunities to do things cheaper, faster, and simpler.”

DESIGN GAUNTLETS • Though goals and growth are expected, challenges remain. “With the uncertainty in the economy, there will be even greater cost pressure for the connector industry due to customer pressure and an oversupply condition,” says Rix. “Those who can wring out the cost in the short term will prevail. 2009 will reveal some new plating technologies that should minimize gold content and reduce product cost.”

Krause also feels the budget crunch. “In the last several years, we’ve been hit by the rising cost of raw materials, including copper, gold, and oil, while customers demand lower and lower prices. The net result is we see tremendous margin pressure in the middle. Another challenge is companies that sell in U.S. dollars while realizing costs in local currencies.” On the brighter side, he says, “In the short term, we are seeing that raw material costs are slowly decreasing. We are hoping that this continues.”

Thakar focuses on collaborative efforts between connector and IC makers. “Printed-circuit-board design and manufacturing has traditionally not been the domain of cable or connector manufacturers. But as the industry moves to higher data rates, they will need to offer solutions with signalintegrity ICs embedded into the cable or the connector,” he says.

EXAMPLES • With an eye on space requirements and high-power handling, Tyco’s Crown Clip Junior connector mates with a 3-mm thick plated bus bar, providing a separable interface that eases assembly, inspection, and troubleshooting (Fig. 1). The right-angle connector solders directly to a PCB or can be screwed to a bus bar for a 150-A current rating at a temperature rise of less than 30°C.

For quick deployment of DisplayPort capabilities in digital-signage, PC, and server applications, Gennum’s GV8502 embarks as a small, cost-effective semiconductor solution that integrates within a standard copper cable assembly (Fig. 2). The chip enables display-cable lengths up to 30 m (approximately 100 ft). According to Gennum, this is more than 15 times the reach of passive DisplayPort cables.

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