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7 tips for designing micro-miniature connectors

13 May 2015  | Charles Murray

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Connectors become more significant as they get tinier.

The reason for that is simple: products are shrinking. The electronics in cell phones, tablet computers, blood glucose monitors and myriad handhelds are getting packed tighter, leaving little room for connectors. The same holds true in defence and aerospace, where satellites, guided munitions and avionics systems, among others, need the compactness that so-called "micro-miniature" connectors can deliver.

As demand for smaller connectors grows, however, design engineers face a new set of challenges. They can no longer defer their connection designs to the waning days of the project. Micro-miniature connectors require forethought. They require that designers consider packaging, durability, current-carrying ability, ease of replacement and other factors early in their designs.

Ease of replacement

Ease of replacement is an issue that should be considered by designers, especially in hermetically sealed enclosures. Molex's VITA 67 micro-miniature connectors are designed for easy replacement. (Source: TE Connectivity)

Following are a few design recommendations from suppliers of micro-miniature connectors. They're based not only on the expertise of connector designers, but on the painful stories of engineers who failed to think ahead, and ended with unexpected last-minute challenges.

1. Consider your connectors early in the design. "Engineers tend to be so focused on designing the overall system that they consider the connectors to be an afterthought," Mitch Storry, manager of product development engineering for TE Connectivity told Design News. "They feel connectors are simple, so they can be deferred to the end of the design process. And then they design themselves into a corner."

Storry sees the frenzied outcomes of 11th-hour connector design all too often. In many cases, he told us, design engineers have to opt for non-standard connectors as a last-minute fix, leading to higher costs and longer lead times.

To avoid those problems, experts who spoke to Design News recommended these steps: Early in the process, decide where your connectors will go. Then make sufficient room for them and design everything around them.

"No one likes to hear, 'First, decide where your connectors will go,'" notes Stephen T. Morley, product development engineer for TE Connectivity. "But if they do it, they can save themselves a lot of time and trouble."

SlimStackArmor

Molex's SlimStack Armor micro-miniature connectors feature 0.35mm pitch, 0.6mm height, and 2mm width. (Source: Molex)

2. Be aware of space limitations. Although micro-miniature board-to-board connectors often have a pitch of less than 1mm, they are typically being placed into tightly packed applications. To deal with potential packaging problems, designers need to consider the traces on the printed circuit (PC) boards, as well the cables that attach to the connectors. "As the pitch gets smaller, you have to make the traces and the cables narrower," said Mike Higashikawa, regional product manager for Molex Inc.

Also, remember that some connectors (flex cable connectors, for example) offer an option for front-flip or back-flip actuation. When designing the system, you'll need to account for those actuation methods. A back-flip connector, for example, can't be easily accessed if there's another component directly behind it.

Finally, designers need to be aware that surface mount machines occasionally can't handle the smaller parts. In some cases, they may need new vacuum nozzles to deal with handling issues.

3. Be aware of current-carrying capabilities. As connector sizes decrease, current-carrying capability drops, too. Typically, a micro-miniature connector can handle between 200mA to 500mA—about half the current of a larger, board-to-board connector. To compensate for that lower current-carrying capability, designers may need to increase the number of terminals.


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