By John Keller
Pressure to reduce size, weight, and price to accommodate advances in systems designs is driving the market for military electronic and electro-optic connectors, not only for connecting subsystems, but also for connecting boards and modules inside boxes, industry experts say.
“The current trend in military acquisition, with its spirals and blocks as opposed to these 10-year programs, is having a big influence on us,” says Jim McLaughlin, product manager at connector manufacturer LEMO USA in Rohnert Park, Calif.
McLaughlin says major military programs like the U.S. Army’s Future Combat System (FCS) are leading the drive toward modularity, rapid technology insertion, and spiral upgrades, and are at the forefront in encouraging ever-smaller and lighter connectors.
“The rapid fielding of acquisition cycles, modularity, and plug-and-play are driving push-pull connectors,” McLaughlin says. “Designers want to be able to pull a connector from here and put it in there, with a minimum of rework and muss and fuss.”
In few application areas is the push for smaller size and lighter weight a bigger issue than for designers of cockpit avionics and other airborne electronic and optoelectronic systems.
“Weight savings is a huge issue for them, even down to the connector level,” says Chris Slinkman, industry marketing manager for the military aerospace market at military connector company Molex in Lisle, Ill. “For the aircraft industry, especially, it is a major issue as they try to drive down the size of the connector and drive down the size and weight of systems.”
In microminiature board-to-board connectors, for example, smaller connectors, denser circuit sizes, and smaller stack heights are primary market drivers, Slinkman says. “The finer the pitch, the better-centerline to centerline,” he says. “It allows you to get more circuits in a smaller area.”
To complicate the market for military and aerospace connector suppliers, however, is the growing demand from designers not only for smaller and lighter connectors, but also for those new connectors to offer vastly increased performance over previous generations.
“We have been hearing about COTS for a long time,” McLaughlin points out. “Now everyone is saying COTS is great, so let’s go to the hardware store and spend $7 to get $700 in performance.”
Fortunately, many suppliers of commercial-grade connectors have an answer to this dilemma.
“In certain performance areas, the commercial connectors are better than the mil-spec connectors,” McLaughlin says. “Mating cycles are one of those areas. A LEMO commercial connector may have 5,000 mating cycles, while a mil-spec connector has a requirement only for 500 mating cycles. When you are trying to plug and unplug in time constrained environment, this can make a big difference.”
As always, making military and aerospace connectors rugged to withstand the effects of shock, vibration, humidity, and salt spray is of primary concerns to systems designers-even as they demand small size, light weight, and low price.
“They are asking for a lot in their connector systems,” Slinkman says. One big thing we will see as we move forward is a major push toward composite circular connectors instead of metal or aluminum, not only for weight issues, but also for corrosion purposes.”
Slinkman says market demand for composite connectors today is “just the tip of the iceberg, but we will really see it in the next one to three years.”