Connectors on Substrates: Showcasing Design & Manufacturing Innovation

The ever-quickening pace of communications coupled with an insatiable appetite for data create a connectivity conundrum. How can you best support rising data rates and decrease loss budgets while reducing channel variability?

Fueling the need for speed are data-intensive applications, such as AI and machine learning. Data rates  double every three years, straining the physical limits of conventional signal transmissions as well as traditional interconnection architectures. At Molex, the best path forward has always been to look to the future without losing sight of the past. That’s why Molex continually extends its core interconnect building blocks to help customers address increased bandwidth, interconnection density and system architecture requirements.

From our vantage point, we have clear line of sight into what’s driving our customers’ focus on speed, density, size, power and heat dissipation. We also have a deep bench of knowledge when it comes to supporting enterprise and next-gen data center architectures empowering the latest generation of applications.

Necessity is the Mother of Invention

The well-known proverb “Necessity is the Mother of Invention” rings true when I think about Molex’s latest invention: NearStack On-the-Substrate (OTS). This newest addition to the NearStack family of high-speed cable assembly solutions is a great example of innovation in product design and manufacturing. It also represents a game-changing design for solving real-world connectivity challenges.

With NearStack OTS, we wanted to offer a direct-to-chip solution that allows for “connectorization” of the ASIC by placing NearStack connectors directly on the chip substrate package. The intent was for this copper-based, low-latency signal path to carry high-speed signals from the chip while avoiding the Printed Circuit Board (PCB) altogether. As we discussed the idea initially, replacing the PCB with twinax cable made the most sense, as it would help minimize the insertion loss of the channel and reduce performance challenges. With PCBs out of the picture, insertion loss is reduced, allowing high-density interconnects to support 112 Gbps transmission over longer distances .

But could it be done? Our ensuing exploration focused on designing the critical characteristics and functionality of the interconnect to make it conducive to the application. Placing the connector on the ASIC package substrate itself is unique—and difficult, because it involves the integration of mechanical, electrical and thermal characteristics in a connector smaller in size than a fingernail.

We also wanted to allow for direct interconnect of signals within the same system and also with other enclosures. Luckily, we knew that leveraging our existing NearStack product portfolio would offer a head-start.

Extreme Mechanical Engineering

Still, the development of NearStack OTS was a feat of extreme engineering. The effort required specialized expertise across Molex’s entire product development, engineering and manufacturing ecosystem. Extensive thermal research and advanced manufacturing were required to ensure appropriate heat resistant elements along with perfectly aligned wire-to-terminal connections and terminations. The team relied on proven product development and engineering processes to integrate the NearStack product line into one overarching manufacturing strategy addressing both substrates and PCB connectivity within a chassis or between multiple chassis.

Molex’s specialized expertise played a pivotal role in fulfilling the NearStack OTS vision, down to the precise welding and soldering of cables and placement of connectors onto the substrate. The Molex automation team proved essential in guiding final product design. Precision mechanics and automated assembly join small, intricate wires with connectors while automated factory-line automation scales manufacturing to server-level volumes as demands dictate.

While lots of credit goes to the engineering team for removing every design barrier in their way, it was the collective knowledge that brought NearStack OTS to life. Having the connectivity know-how, engineering expertise and volume manufacturing prowess together under one roof is really what enabled this creative invention to join a rapidly growing list of Molex innovations.

With NearStack OTS, we addressed all the challenges of getting this product ready for mass manufacturing while also creating a core connectivity solution that can be embedded in multiple designs going forward. Our ultimate goal: innovate and deliver versatile offerings that customers can mix and match to meet a variety of applications and interconnect architectures.

A Menu of Interconnectivity Options

Molex strives to deliver a full menu of flexible options that permit repackaging different features and designs to meet the broadest range of requirements. Looking ahead, it won’t matter whether the connector is placed on a PCB, CPU, GPU, NPU or any ASIC; it will come down to ensuring seamless connections and communications.

According to Global Market Insights, the global connector market is poised to exceed $75 billion by 2026, as automotive, telecommunications and Industry 4.0 drive increased demand for network bandwidth. Growing digitalization and the rising penetration of smart devices also are expected to accelerate growth, along with AI. Molex is well positioned to continually drive innovation with speed and agility.

We listen closely to our customers, and their valuable input is reflected in long-range planning along with daily conversations about how to close connectivity gaps and plan for the future. As a commitment to our industry, Molex technology roadmaps look five-to-eight years into the future to anticipate industry needs with concurrent and continuous innovation.

General Manager, Enterprise Solutions at Molex