As DesignCon 2012 Approaches

As DesignCon 2012 approaches, I am amazed when I step back for a minute, and consider where the industry I am involved with (connectors) has gone over the past decade or so. Yes, I have been involved with connectors, in one way or the other, since 1974. I have seen many changes, but the most interesting to me is the incredible change in the data rates that we are transmitting through the products we design and manufacture.

Not that long ago (Ok – quite a while ago) I was lucky enough as an Engineering Manager to have a PC on my desk. It was an IBM AT, and had a nice Amber screen and a 40 MB hard drive. Yes, that’s Megabytes, so I could store about 320,000,000 bits on my hard drive.  Today, we routinely work with 10 Gbps transmission systems.  Such a system could transmit the entire contents of my hard drive about 32 times in one second.  Quite honestly, I think we have all lost grasp of the incredible progress that has been made in the area of signal transmission, without which we would not be able to support all the mobile phones, computer and pads with the numerous bandwidth-hungry apps.

Connectors have always been a mechanically oriented product, where cost and reliability were king. Of course, cost and reliability are now a given in order to participate, but skill in the art of Signal Integrity has been added as another layer of performance.  When I was in night school, digital engineering to a large degree consisted of Boolean algebra. Now, the systems, cables and connectors run so fast, they must be treated as passive analog components, much as components have always been treated in the world of RF connectors and Microwave applications.  Analog is back!

In those days, companies like Molex might have 2 EEs, one with a degree perhaps in Advanced Development, and another maybe in the reliability lab, and very likely self-taught at that.

Now, we have an entire engineering group devoted to SI analysis, both simulation and testing. There are most likely over 50 EEs spread through the company, both internally for product development and test, but also in the various customer- facing roles, providing direct support.  In the products I am involved with (interconnects for 10 and 25 Gbps), Signal Integrity is a dominant competitive factor, and I do not expect this to change. However, as 25 Gbps systems in particular are developed and deployed, two additional areas will require expertise, EMI and Thermal.

No one knows just how challenging a 25 Gbps system will be to implement in accordance with FCC requirements, but if history in 10 Gbps serves, we can expect issues.  Increasing power requirements and higher port densities also challenges today’s connector designers, as well as system designers at our customers.  My goal is to try to have solutions in place and available as these problems arise.

Connectors have come a long way since I designed a 1/16 pitch edge connector in my youth, and the road forward still appears to offer plenty of challenges to keep us busy for a long time.