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Avionics connectors market turning around with a push toward lower size, weight, and power

Click to EnlargeBy John McHale
Avionics connector designers say the commercial aviation is market is starting to rebound from the recession, while the hot sector of the military market continues to be unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Technology requirements for both markets continue to trend toward lower size, weight, and power.
"The aerospace market globally appears quite positive," says Greg Powers, market development manager, global aerospace, defense & marine at Tyco Electronics in Harrisburg, Pa. "Commercial [aviation] is looking stronger daily with the public traveling more, airlines reporting profits, and airframe developers working hard to roll out new models and upgrades. The commercial avionics market follows suit and is realizing additional growth via system evolution and technologies such as the Next Generation air Transportation System (NextGen) and automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B)." 
"Business is embarrassingly good, the best I've ever seen it in the high reliability business" -- and in the high reliability world the big chunk is avionics, says Bill Neukomm, vice president of Harwin in Salem, N.H.
There are twice the number of aircraft being put into production with new orders coming in for next generation Lear jets, Cessnas, and 737 orders are very strong as well, Neukomm continues. The Boeing 787 is delayed about six months, but once deployed means about a 1,000 aircraft with the entire backlog -- all of which will need a lot of connectors, he adds.
"Market trends in commercial and military seems to be merging," says Bob Stanton, worldwide sales manager for Omnetics in Minneapolis, Minn. "But volume and technology growth seems to include a lot of movement into the international sector. Other technically advanced nations seem to want to build their own and have their own ideas that do not necessarily follow the trend set by the Boeing system or the U.S. military systems."
"What I have seen is that non military component demand in commercial aerospace is coming back quite strong -- and not including the new aircraft such as the Boeing 787," says John Binder, industry manager, Mil Aero Segment at Hypertronics in Hudson, Mass. Traditional aircraft production is ramping up and buying behavior about as high as it was before the market crash, he adds.
"Defense related avionics are also strong given the major programs in process, fleet modernization efforts, and the strong rotary wing segment," Powers says. "UAVs remain in high demand given heightened intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance desires; advances in the science; and the vast selection of platforms available. "The space industry continues its expansion with increased international assets and rising satellite service demand."
The military market is still very strong, but may weaken a little depending on budget trends, Binder says. "I believe the big area of opportunity will be in the ground vehicle and aerial tanker programs once those are announced, he continues. There is also still some activity on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, but how much in the long-term will depend on political decisions, Binder adds.
UAV market
"UAVs are also on the move, as a member of the UAV society, I see faster design and export completion in places like Israel, than in the U.S," Stanton says. "Israel's and other countries' more socialized system for funding seems to be pushing the trends and evolution faster than here in the U.S. There may also be less big brother noise in other nations than the U.S. The largest growth in number of designs and useful equipment seems to be in the portable, miniature UAVs. From watching Ice melt rate in Spitzbergen, Norway to portable systems being employed at the Arizona border, we see the small, lightweight systems becoming a very large market niche. Connectors used in these applications must combine the features of rugged, lightweight, and handle surveillance type signal processing.
"UAVs are the hot market in the long term but in the short term we are battling Department of Defense (DOD) budget cuts," Binder says. "If you look at the DOD budget every service agency in military" and even the non-military agencies are looking to have UAV programs, he adds.
The biggest increase in defense for Harwin is in UAV systems, Neukomm says. He says Harwin is on the ScanEagle UAV and a new small UAV platform from AeroMech.
Technology trends
Size, weight, and power (SWaP) is driving connector designs in aerospace and defense circles, Powers says. "For avionics connectors, minimizing size and weight remain common goals, but continually increasing performance is the primary goal. This applies to high speed digital, analog, fiber optic and power interconnect. Customers are seeking robust, efficient, user friendly, user configurable solutions that are scalable and will support them through multiple platform evolutions. As system capabilities escalate, the need for elegant interconnect solutions intensifies."
"Most notable is the trend to smaller, more agile, lower flight-cost aircraft in both segments," Stanton says. "Newer, light-weight electronics at higher circuit speeds are also involved in that trend. Our new but already mature commercial aircraft use a lot of circuitry and transmissions in the mid-megahertz ranges and yet we see more and more avionics beginning to use more and more gigahertz circuitry.
"An old word is coming back to me from my silicon days," Stanton says. "Instead of standard connectors, or custom connectors, we are seeing a steady request for application specific connector designs in the avionics industry. With the extended utilization of previously built aircraft in both the commercial and military the old planes are lasting longer and being used longer. 
"The two products I see taking off a lot in the avionics industry for Omnetics is the Nano-circular, and one of our latching bi-lobe designs, Stanton says. 
Pictured is the Datamate S-Tek connector from Harwin."The chip, module, and connector industry is still evolving every 3-5 years, however," Stanton continues. "With these changes, the avionics folks are demanding customized methods to integrate the newer technologies into the still viable, but mature aircraft. Even newly built planes, to older designs have sections that are upgraded during final build-out of the electronics and technologies. The new electronics require less current and lower voltages, but still need a power line or two and need increasing electro-magnetic interference (EMI) protection as circuit and communication speeds increase."
Neukomm says Harwin is getting a lot of demand for EMI shielding. "We have for years hearing customers ask about shielding. With the shielded option you can have" it in an I/O application or directly on to the board-specific application. It is tested to MIL-STD 1377, he adds.
"We're still seeing lot of demand to combine both power and signal capability in one package, which we do with the Datamate product," Neukomm says.
Harwin's Datamate hi-rel connector family is now available with single-piece, machined metal backshells that provide electrical screening against RFI and EMI interference. The S-Tek also enables the connector family to be utilized for I/O applications as well as PCB-mount designs. Datamate is a 2 millimeter pitch cable-to-cable, cable-to-board, and board-to-board connector family designed to survive extremes of shock, vibration, and temperature.
"We see connector designs evolving to use a mix of 3 amp and 1 amp signals in many aircraft applications," Powers says. "Fortunately, with solid model design, fast molding methods, and numerical controlled machining equipment, the design, approval, and prototype process for these application-specific connectors is rather fast and lower priced than in previous times. Most new designs are also spin-offs of current designs and use pre-approved elements that pass tests, such as those in the military specifications. These new-breed connectors are almost always smaller, include some latching or locking feature, have shielded cable, and are designed to withstand the constant shock and vibration environment of the avionics industry. I would look for a fast locking micro-nano D shaped connector with metal back-shells and shielded cable to emerge across the industry to address the many new modules, sensors, and data processing tools used in aircraft.  
Tyco Electronics' latest products for avionics are the Fortis Zd backplane connector and the Mezalok (VITA 61) mezzanine connector, Powers says. There continues to be a demand for VPX products and Tyco Electronics is providing fiber optic and RF solutions known as VITA 66 and 67 for this market. 
"Most Hypertronics customers are really looking for higher density, pitch, lower weight, and faster speeds in connectors, yet they are still stuck with 38999 big connectors," Binder says.
"There is a real opportunity to replace single out of box connector in aircraft and military missile," he continues. "Something has to be done and everybody knows it has to be done so it will happen in our lifetime."
One Hypertronics offering in the avionics market is their KFT Series, which  provides a low profile, dual row in-line interconnect solution for stacking and use in areas where board real estate is at a premium. KFT is designed to be miniature, enabling higher signal counts in smaller spaces by providing a 0.050 inches contact pitch and a board-to-board stack height of just 0.343 inches.
In the short term Binder says there also is demand for smaller, higher density board-to-board VPX and XMC products.

 


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