Applications Driving Electronics Miniaturization

Smart phones and smart watches are the types of products that invoke thoughts of miniaturization for most consumers. Miniaturization is nothing new in electronics, but there is little doubt that it is accelerating. And there are many factors driving the trend toward smaller, slimmer and more streamlined far beyond semiconductor scaling. Moore’s law and more advanced integrated circuits are enablers of more powerful and smaller systems, but it is ultimately a small set of advanced application areas that are driving demand for miniaturized components. 

Integrated circuits aren’t the only components being miniaturized in advanced electronics. Application areas like wireless devices, smart consumer devices, data center infrastructure and edge computing require greater I/O and feature density, which are driving miniaturization of every component  in an assembly. In particular, mechanical elements like connectors are prime targets for miniaturization, especially in complex multi-board assemblies found in today’s advanced products. 

Driving Factors in Miniaturization 

Design is a critical driver of the miniaturization of electronic components common to many application areas. Semiconductor scaling is only part of the equation; the trend towards component miniaturization spans to all other areas of the assembly, including mechanical components and connectors. Some of the major factors driving miniaturization include: 

  • Greater feature density from the standpoint of increasing numbers of components packed into smaller board/enclosure space 
  • Greater feature diversity to address the many diverse features in a single chip, board and enclosure 
  • Greater I/O density to support the greater feature requirements highlighted above 
  • User experience evolution that drives device form factors that then spur miniaturization requirements 

Further complicating the drive to miniaturization is the fact that many systems enabling advanced applications are built as complex multi-board assemblies. In some electronic devices, the largest components are the connectors and cables, so miniaturization of these components is very important for hitting form factor targets. Some of the major application areas where we see the greatest drive for miniaturization include RF/wireless devices, consumer electronics and data center/edge computing. 

RF and Wireless Systems 

In the past, RF systems occupied more board space and required bulky external components for wireless communications. The two main reasons for this were scarcity of small, efficient components, as well as the fact that many RF devices were operating at lower frequencies. Certain RF components and circuits operating at lower frequencies actually require larger components due to the operating wavelengths of signals in these systems. 

5G, mmWave radar and mmWave sensing are three of the major application areas where higher operating frequencies create demand for smaller components. As modern wireless applications rely on operation at higher frequencies, reaching well into the GHz range, RF circuits and components have reduced in size. This includes specialty RF systems relying on printed RF circuits, as well as wireless systems with larger, denser antenna arrays. 

5G mmWave RF Flex-to-Board Connector

The miniaturization issue with antenna arrays arises in two important areas: 5G devices and car radar sensors. The form factor of these devices is highly constrained by enclosures and placement in vehicles, respectively, with form factors demanding very low-profile board assemblies. Low-profile connectors are imperative for hitting form factor and profile targets in these systems while also ensuring signal integrity across board-to-board interconnects. 

Consumer Electronics 

Smart phones are the most popular mobile devices in use worldwide, but other devices like personal health products and newer home electronics are also driving component miniaturization. Many consumer electronic products are known for their sleek form factor, which requires miniaturization of the largest components in these products. 

Connectors and interconnects in handsets are strong examples. As device profiles have shrunk and board space is reduced to make room for other components, connections between antenna modules, displays and the main PCB require a board-to-board or flex-to-board mating connector set with very low profile along the z-axis. 

Easy-On FFC FPC Connector

These kinds of flat connectors enable interconnects with high I/O density, flexibility, very low profiles or a combination of these. As more devices implement foldable enclosures, more interconnect designs will be flexible, typically with a low-profile connector and cable assembly. These connectors often need to transfer power and signals in the same interconnect, so they may also require high current ratings while ensuring signal integrity for fast digital signals. 

Data Center and Edge Computing 

Hardware for data center infrastructure and edge computing systems shares common characteristics as both areas become more feature dense. The data center environment continues to require additional computing as more infrastructure integrates more powerful networking equipment, AI acceleration and FPGA/GPU expansion options. This comes with smaller available space inside rack-mount servers deployed in data centers. 

The same size constraints are found in edge computing, where there is an attempt to bring the same data center capabilities closer to end users in a smaller form factor. In both areas, the computing systems that continue to see a push towards miniaturization include:  

  • Mounting and enclosure solutions 
  • Fan and heat sink profiles 
  • Expansion/accelerator card form factor 
  • Mezzanine and board-to-board connector 
  • Wire-to-board connectors for signal and power 
  • Optical transceiver and interconnect solutions 

In specialized computing paradigms, like AI at the edge, connector systems must provide high data transfer rate capabilities between components on the motherboard, as well as to peripherals and external equipment. In these systems, connector and cable assemblies may also need to provide power in the same interconnect, depending on the target form factor and application area. 

Finally, there is an important element of reliability in these systems, which must have reasonably long lifetimes and may involve exposure to harsh environments. Connector systems for these products should provide an appropriate IP rating and withstand mechanical shock, but in a small form factor that provides the required pin density and z-axis profile. 

Molex Enables Advanced Applications 

Companies working in these advanced areas will continue to face form factor challenges and will require a range of interconnect solutions that provide low profile, signal integrity and required I/O counts. Molex works at the forefront of these advanced application areas and provides a range of connector solutions, as well as engineering capabilities and expertise to build custom interconnect systems. Molex delivers high-yield, cost-effective products that satisfy the demand for streamlined and miniaturized applications, signal integrity and form factor requirements in industries from communications to automotive and consumer IoT products.