Miniaturizing Innovation: How Smart Thinking Made a Smartwatch Smarter  

In the race to add features, consumer electronics designers need to innovate—fast.

Such was the case for one of the leading smartwatch manufacturers, who was looking to add more functionality on their next generation model but had no room on the circuit board to accommodate new enabling electronics. The manufacturer realized that the connector critical to enabling the technology took up too much valuable space on a key circuit board and they turned to Molex for help addressing this issue. Having shipped more than forty billion board-to-board micro connectors for mobile devices and wearables since the introduction of the smartphone in 2010, Molex was uniquely qualified to help.

Rapidly Forging a New Design

To solve the problem, Molex worked closely with the smartwatch manufacturer, their Flexible Printed Circuits (FPC) provider, and their Contract Manufacturers (CM) to rapidly integrate design ideas and ensure the feasibility of proposed changes as work progressed.

The result of this intense, deadline-driven teamwork was the industry’s first staggered-circuit layout for a micro connector. With up to 30% space savings over conventional designs, this new Quad-Row Board-to-Board connector opened up extensive real estate for new sensors and other hardware needed to deliver added functionality.

Building on a Foundation of Internal Collaboration

Achieving this never-before-seen density required tight collaboration between Molex engineers and its high-precision, miniaturization-focused manufacturing team in Japan. The two teams worked together in real time thanks to in-house tooling—an unusual capability in the industry.

The automation and interconnectivity between the shop floor and engineers also reduced the time needed to move from idea to implementation. Molex engineers were able to see that the connector mating needed some modifications. In response, they designed an insert-molded interior armor to prevent connector breakage; an insert-molded power nail to prevent damage at the mating operation; and a wide alignment to facilitate the proper mating position.

Molex is built on a foundation of collaboration based on Koch Industries’ Market Based Management (MBM®) principles, which empower individual and group decision making. The importance of this collaborative approach is validated by the recent Design Engineer Tell-All survey in which 92% of design engineers agree that collaboration skills are just as important as technical expertise in the design environment.

Serving as a Trusted Consultant

In fact, Molex’s collaborative approach extends to our customers and our suppliers. Over time, these collaborations have evolved into deep relationships, expanding our role as a strategic technical advisor.

In the case of the Quad-Row micro connector, Molex engineers identified that SMT service providers use a standard 0.35mm pitch for ease of manufacturability. Anything smaller than 0.30mm pitch is currently difficult to efficiently and accurately assemble and process. To maintain manufacturability and assembly confidence with CMs, Molex engineers determined the familiar layout for the mounting pads needed to remain intact. Instead, the team focused on what it could control: the internal signal contacts layout.

In collaboration with experts from a global leader in design, development and manufacturing of FPCs the Molex engineering teams determined that staggering the pins as close as possible allowed the pins to be positioned across four rows at a much closer signal contact pitch of 0.175mm. The result: the first ever staggered circuit layout that delivers unprecedented space savings of 30% – enabling high-density circuit connectivity.

This was all made possible through consistent teamwork and Molex’s engrained dedication to forming strong relationships with its customers and supplier ecosystem. By establishing advocates within the R&D department of the FPC supplier, the engineering team was able to persuade the FPC supplier and the smartwatch manufacturer to make key design changes—such as soldering the micro connector to the FPC. This changed the game in terms of design, opening up key opportunities for more capabilities to be tucked into a tighter space. Molex design engineers also assessed that the design change would also improve reliability when manufacturing at scale.

The Future of Innovation

As manufacturers continue to expand the functionality of small products like smartphones, earbuds, and AR/VR devices, their increasingly densely packed PCBs must remain height-scalable and maintain a very small footprint. New connector designs like the Quad-Row can help them innovate without worrying about issues like signal integrity.

That’s why it’s so important to have suppliers you can turn to not just for parts, but for collaboration. Molex provides this advice across the entire mobile device ecosystem—with proven expertise in 5G, mmWave, RF, signal integrity, antenna, power, camera and display technologies.

Molex has shipped over 150 million Quad-Row connectors and it is now available for commercial use. Molex’s culture of collaboration and early customer collaboration led to the development of a highly differentiated design concept that we continue to explore with new configurations coming soon.