By John Keller
Here's the good news for commercial and military avionics connector suppliers: there's a growing need for your products. Here's the bad news: systems integrators want more capability, higher bandwidth, increased ruggedness, more resistance to lightning and electro-magnetic pulse, less risk from materials, yet want connectors that are smaller and lighter than ever before.
"Business is skyrocketing overt the last couple months," says Bill Neukomm, vice president of sales at Harwin in Salem, N.H. Part of that is from defense but also a result of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner's first flight getting off the ground, he adds. Boeing has large amount of backlog on the 787 and "we are in many of the avionics systems" and other parts of those aircraft, Neukomm continues.
Designers in both markets however are demanding more and more reliability and flexibility in addition to the smaller size, Neukomm says. This is especially true with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), the largest growth area in the military market, he adds.
"For a long time, in a lot of mil-spec connectors, size was not a concern," explains one official of rugged connector supplier Glenair Inc. in Glendale, Calif., who wishes not to be named. "Now the focus has shifted from reducing the effects of shock and vibration, to how do I make it smaller and lighter so I can put more payload on platforms like unmanned aerial vehicles. It's got to act like a mil-spec connector, but my customers need something smaller."
Versatility is also an issue with aerospace system designers, says David Humphreys, product manager for Datamate at Harwin. Some systems such as one Harwin did for NASA called Robonaut, required connectors that could combine signal and power capability in the same package – to manage high currents between 10 and 15 amperes, he continues.
NASA went with Robonaut's Datamate, which "combine signal contacts as high as 3A and power contacts as high as 20A in one shell, as well as coax connectors capable of 50 ohm (6GHz) performance," Humphreys continues.
Connectors have to be rugged like never before. "We are flying higher and hotter," says Robert Stanton, director of technology at Omnetics Connector Corp., in Minneapolis. "Our requirements used to be -55 to plus 125 degrees Celsius, but today, based on what our customers are telling us, we are all offering products up to 200 C, which used to be only for petroleum."
Temperature extremes are not the only reason that systems designers are ratcheting-up their requirements for ruggedness in connectors. The digital battlefield and network-centric warfare require infantry soldiers to carry a growing amount of electronic equipment, from sensors to wearable computers, to displays, and that means small, lightweight connectors.
"These guys want to carry more gadgets, and connect them, all on their bodies -- GPS, night vision goggles, friend or foe equipment -- and they want to hook them all together," Stanton explains.
Then what happens at the end of the mission? The exhausted soldier staggers into camp and just wants to disconnect from his equipment as quickly as possible so he can get cleaned up, get a meal, and hit the rack. "They tug on the connector when they throw the equipment off," Stanton explains. "Our pullout spec is going to have to evolve to be tougher and tougher.
"It's the housewife vacuum cleaner test," Stanton continues. "My wife insists that cord is not for electricity, but for dragging the vacuum cleaner around. It's the same for our soldiers. The pullout test will emerge more and more significantly than it is today."
Val McOmber, product manager for connector supplier LEMO USA Inc. in Rohnert Park, Calif., echoes concerns for ruggedness. "The request that comes most often is I need to maintain gasketing for water tightness and harsh chemicals, but keep the panel size down," McOmber says. "The trend in miniaturization is continuing, and the connector can be the largest element. If I can shrink the connectors, I can shrink the box size."
One of the primary ways that connector designers reduce weight is to switch from metals to ceramics. The problem with that, however, is the potential for toxic fumes to form in the presence of fire or other extreme environmental conditions. "If it's not a good material, and we have an alternative, why not get rid of the hazardous material?" says LEMO's McOmber. "This is not yet a requirement, but the ball is definitely rolling in that direction."
Switching from metal in connector designs also has consequences for performance in harsh environments. "Moving away from an aluminum skin structure to a composite can allow more energy from lighting and EMP to get into the wiring harnesses," McOmber points out. "We're hearing rumblings for more lightning protection in our connectors."
One way to eliminate problems from electromagnetic interference, lighting, and EMP is to move to fiber optics, says the Glenair representative. "It has been a slow trend, but it's a real trend," he says. We are increasingly using more fiber optic cabling or hybrid fiber and electric cabling, for high speed, high bandwidth, EMP, and EMI issues."
Accel Connectors Inc.
Advanced Interconnections Corp.
West Warwick, R.I.
American Micro Products Inc.
Myrtle Beach, S.C.
BTC Electronic Components Inc.
Wake Forest, N.C .
Newton, MA 02458
Carlisle Interconnect Technologies
St. Augustine, Fla.
Concord Electronics Corp.
New York, N.Y.
Connector Technology Inc.
DA-Green Electronics LTD.
South River, N.J.
Delphi Connection Systems
Delta Electronics Manufacturing Corp.
South El Monte, Calif..
Deutsch ECD Defense/Aerospace Operations
+41 (91) 785 45 45
Endicott Interconnect Technologies Inc.
+33 (0)1 39 49 21 83
Fischer Connectors Inc.
Greene, Tweed & Co.
Interconnect Devices Inc. (IDI)
Kansas City, Kan.
ITT Interconnect Solutions
Santa Ana, Calif.
North Andover, Mass.
Florham Park, N.J.
LEMO USA Inc.
Rohnert Park, Calif.
+44 (0)1227 793 733
Miles Tek Corp.
Santa Rosa, Calif.
Nicomatic North America
Omnetics Connector Corp.
Pacific Aerospace & Electronics
Pasternack Enterprises Inc.
Phoenix Contact USA
Positronic Industries Inc.
Robert Technologies Inc.
Spectrum Control Inc.
Times Microwave Systems
Tyco Electronics Aerospace & Defense
W.L. Gore & Associates
Winchester Electronics Corp.
Join the PennWell Aerospace and Defense Media Group on Linkedin at http://bit.ly/9MXl9
Become a fan of Military & Aerospace Electronics on Facebook at http://bit.ly/1VGM0Q