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Getting the aerospace industry better connected
There are many interconnect trends and innovations when it comes to the aerospace industry, a sector where only high-quality, high performance solutions will suffice. These trends include lightweighing, miniaturisation, robustness, functionality, data rate speeds, and system re-qualification – all of which are driving demand for new innovations.
Author: Bob Stanton, Omnetics Connector Corp. Although robust, miniature, high-speed interconnects are in huge demand, flexibility and ease of integration are also key criteria for aircraft manufacturers. Time is money, and if it is possible to trim minutes off the installation of each connector in a harness, it can save the integrators hours of labour. By way of example, Omnetics has listened to industry concerns about the tedious nature of jackscrews on connectors. With a pair of jackscrews, integrators must make alternate half-turns on each screw to avoid damaging the connector. This is why Omnetics has developed a quick-latch system on Micro and Nano-D connectors that eliminates this problem and streamlines final integration. These latching connectors have been thoroughly tested above and beyond the shock and vibration requirements of the aviation industry. Indeed, Omnetics connectors are designed for the harshest, most extreme environments, with some able to offer 260 degree C temperature resistance, IP69 sealing and 1000+ hours of salt spray resistance. Size is clearly a big deal in the aerospace industry. Here, interconnect specialists can make connectors and harnesses smaller and lighter than many designers are comfortable using. In fact, some designers are restricting themselves with antiquated specifications that were written for larger interconnect systems at a time when high currents and analogue circuits were normal. Newer digital circuitry and lower power consumption should allow for smaller wire sizes, tighter PCB traces and smaller through-hole annular rings. Omnetics is certainly ready for the next big push towards size and mass reduction, when the market is ready to accept it. For any connector manufacturer to be successful in the modern aviation market, it must be a big proponent of size and mass reduction, even though there is still some fear in the industry of using wire smaller than 26 AWG. And yet Omnetics has supplied harnesses for deep space exploratory vehicles using 40 AWG coax. In addition, there are countless applications in avionics and space where Nano-D connectors on 0.64 mm pitch are being used with 32 AWG wire. This reduction in size not only reduces harness mass, but makes for a much more flexible harness with tighter bend radii. Wire weight and number of cables can also be reduced by using mixed signal or hybrid cable systems. These carry both power and signal simultaneously in one cable, which means one fewer jacket and one fewer connector per pair. When signals are sensitive, adding the use of coax within the mixed cable set protects against signal crosstalk and EMI problems. One cable versus two or three can significantly reduce weight and routing problems. As a further point of note, vertical fired laser diodes couple easily to horizontal fibre cable and, as the need continues to route more data throughout the aircraft, the aerospace industry is seeing the evolution of electrical to fibre interconnects. The fibre is lower in weight and less sensitive to cyber-attack from outside the aircraft. Of course, the idea of something being lightweight might suggest that it is not sufficiently robust, a criticism often levied at PCBs. Sure enough, connectors mounted to PCBs can become a problem with regard to size if the design is not properly thought out. Increasing numbers of aircraft are using low-profile connectors, such as a low-profile Micro-D or Nano-D shaped connector mounted in the same horizontal plane as the board. Attachment to the board relies on right-angle soldered SMT connections and/or right-angle soldered thru-hole attachments. The cable then approaches the board in the same horizontal plane to retain that low-profile form. This concept allows the aircraft system designer to use higher density ‘circuit card stacking’ techniques, similar to those used in Cube Satellite (CubeSat) electronics. The connector retains its tine-to-socket interconnection and succeeds in offering all of the reliability and ruggedness expected from the system. All of these trends mean that interconnection specialists must continue working to improve their engagement with the aerospace industry’s protagonists, specifically with regard to their change management/continuous improvement/lean initiatives like SC21. Highly certified, rugged aircraft-level products for new applications are readily available for immediate use, but to achieve level 2 of SC21 Omnetics retains an online staff of solid model designer engineers who work directly with external designers around the world, when required. Standard products flow into the supply chain as needed, but in addition, modified products designed to be ‘application specific’ are rapidly extracted from existing designs in a way that saves significant time and cost of total R&D for new products. Omnetics also has great interest in sector developments such as All Electric Aircraft (AEA) and More Electric Aircraft (MEA). In actual fact, the company is already working closely with OEMs that are developing the next generation of electric aircraft. Omnetics’ range of low-mass, miniature and rugged connectors are ideal for this environment. Another huge trend in the sector is Industry 4.0 and its impact on manufacturing processes. Omnetics has grown carefully into this style of design and manufacturing. However, the biggest challenge to be faced is IT security. The company has worked feverishly to update hardware, software and procedures to comply with the latest cybersecurity guidelines. Looking ahead, the next step is the continued modernisation and automation of production facilities. A long-term dream for Omnetics would be to have its manufacturing and inventory systems tied into its customers’ production lines so that automatic builds and shipments could be processed without human intervention. Moving forward, there are many market opportunities for the latest interconnect innovations, such as the use of small satellites that work interactively with earthbound products; from communication and surveillance, to active monitoring position of individuals or groups of individuals. Omnetics also sees the evolution of new techniques for geophysical mapping and hyperspectral imaging, which plots mineral and hydrocarbon deposits on earth. Ultra-miniature, ultra-light, very high-speed data processing, and constant position monitoring and tracking with adjacent satellites, is a fascinating and challenging market. In this industry, no business can rest on its laurels. All those serving the aerospace sector have to be nimble and indeed adaptable. Moreover, an open mind is essential to ensure that something new is learnt every day. The aerospace industry is a competitive landscape and if one thing held true for decades now, it is that fortune favours the innovators. Author: Bob Stanton, Omnetics Connector Corp.
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