The Amazing Race: Molex Rallies to Speed Delivery of Groundbreaking 5G Connectors

Building high-speed connectors for mobile devices is a team sport. Dedicated specialists must bring their “A” game and leave nothing on the field to support successful go-to-market strategies. Today’s introduction of Molex’s RF mmWave 5G25 Connector series epitomizes the grit, passion and pride of supplying top-quality samples in a matter of months—a major milestone for Molex and the growing 5G mobile device market. The journey from start to finish was an amazing race.

According to market watcher IDC, the global smartphone market is poised for its fastest growth since 2015, in large part due to the proliferation of 5G-enabled devices. As the mobile device industry rebounds from pandemic-related doldrums, analysts predict triple-digit growth of 5G shipments across most regions, contributing to forecasted smartphone shipments of 1.38 billion units by year end.

To gain ground in this highly competitive market, chipmakers and mobile device manufacturers are racing to attain components and connections for producing smaller, smarter devices. We don’t take lightly what’s at stake here as it’s an exciting task to take the kind of connectivity found in a sophisticated data center and place it on a printed circuit board about the size of a grain of rice. As a leading supplier in this high-volume market for years, we achieved just that while balancing critical electrical, mechanical and environmental functionality needed to support next-generation mobile devices.

The Need for Speed

It all started with a phone call to Lily Chang, Principal Mechanical Engineer within our Micro Solutions Business Unit (MSBU). We had an immediate opportunity to develop a 5G connector for a global chipmaker working on an RF antenna module. The challenge: the connector needed to be capable of meeting aggressive signal integrity specifications up to 25 GHz. Our lead, Japan-based design team had roughly two weeks to develop and validate initial design concepts, which led to the quick realization that a global, around-the-clock effort would be needed to meet the timeline.

It was a BIG ask—which Lily confirmed, saying it was nearly impossible to meet the tight deadline. Then she immediately sprang into action, assembling a team of talented US-based engineers from different Molex business units to support the Japan design team to fulfill the customer commitment. During her 26 years with Molex, Lily has worked with many departments, so she knew exactly who to ask. “My job is to ensure we have the right talent working on the right areas to minimize iterations and reduce risk,” Lily explains. “I’m very lucky to be in this organization where I have the freedom to use all of the connections that I’ve made to add value.”

One of Lily’s first calls was to Brian O’Malley, a 22-year Molex veteran and Principal Engineer, Signal Integrity and RF. For the past two decades, Brian and Lily have traded cross-divisional insights on behalf of customers around the world. “Lily has been integral to the RF team,” says O’Malley. “Her knowledge of specific suppliers and technologies has played a huge role in developing some of our antennas. In fact, she once offered input that saved us six to 12 months of development time on a particular project.”

I also reached out to Bill Spink, Global Director of Engineering for RF Products. I was fortunate to meet Bill during Molex’s Management Transformation Program (MTP), which brings together aspiring company leaders to participate in a two-year managerial development curriculum. While Bill is based in Chicago and I’m in Tokyo, we bounce ideas off each other regularly. It took Bill less than 60 seconds to offer help and ensure Brian would be available to join the effort. “Molex has resources of varying diversity across all of its business units and divisions, and we’re able to come together and collaborate, which is quite unique for a big company,” adds Spink. “We’re not siloed as an organization, so there aren’t the typical fences or barriers between groups.”

From a Molex lab in Indiana, Brian performed advanced simulations using HFSS finite element analysis software. Team members in Illinois became part of our extended Japan-based team. Everyone joined regular customer calls to explore every aspect of the intricate design. Also participating were experts in signal integrity and high-speed communications from Molex’s Copper Solutions Business Unit (CSBU) within the Datacom & Specialty Solutions Division.

According to Peerouz Amleshi, who’s been with Molex for 22 years and now serves as VP of Engineering for CSBU, the flexibility and ease with which the broader team came together was impressive. “We know how to create faster, denser, miniaturized circuits,” he says. “But seamless project management was the key to this project’s success. The mechanical engineering and manufacturing prototyping teams in Japan turned around things so fast and were so efficient—it was amazing and made it easier for us to focus on improving signal integrity.”

We also saved significant time by conducting rigorous performance tests at Molex’s 5G testing chamber at our headquarters in Lisle, Ill., as well as at additional labs in our divisional headquarters in Japan. Since testing equipment capable of qualifying performance at speeds up to 25 GHz wasn’t readily available, even at the customer’s site, we retrofitted our chamber to handle higher-frequency testing inhouse.

Culture of Collaboration

Molex’s culture of collaboration and early customer engagement led to the development of a highly differentiated design concept backed by enough data to secure a green light to produce samples. Faced with another tight turnaround, we spent the next five months continuously improving the design while alleviating issues that are prevalent at higher speeds, such as signal loss, interference and crosstalk.

Miniaturization also brought a unique set of challenges since real estate is at such a premium on smartphones. A lot of ideas were exchanged as we pushed to optimize electrical and mechanical performance. Manufacturing engineers ensured molding, stamping and plating were ready for volume manufacturing.

More than 20 members of a Molex “dream team” contributed to this project’s success, culminating in the completion of top-quality production samples within months–stark contrast to the year or more typically associated with a project of this magnitude. Moreover, as word circulated about our “all hands on deck,” total solutions approach, we heard from other customers eager to learn more.

One longtime customer, a major mobile device manufacturer, wanted advice on how to build an engineering team capable of fast-tracking this type of project. In an instant, our relationship evolved into the role of trusted advisor, moving beyond technical product discussions to more business-focused insights on creating high-impact teams. We explained that each stakeholder must have a seat at the communal table from the beginning because it’s clear to us that mechanical, electrical and manufacturing engineers need a full understanding of how their individual decisions impact each other.

Our customer also saw the unique advantages we brought based on this experience and asked for our support to help them develop another mmWave RF Board-to-Board connector to meet their performance needs. Faced with another tight timeframe, we saved months of development time and kept their overall project on schedule. We are now preparing to bring this product to mass production to support a major product launch.  

It took engineering talent and relentless determination to complete this project, and everyone was extremely proud as we crossed the finish line. I’m grateful for the trust placed in me as team captain, just as I trusted each and every member to make a difference. At various steps along the way, we all were reminded of Koch Industries’ Market-Based Management (MBM®) principles, which empower individual and group decision making. These principles offer a roadmap for successful collaboration, stressing the importance of integrity, humility, stewardship, self-actualization and respect to create long-lasting value for our customers—and their customers—as well as our society as a whole.

We learned a lot from bringing this industry-leading connector to market. In fact, it’s changed how we approach all MSBU projects, starting with the formation of a 5G Council. We now invite our electrical, mechanical and manufacturing engineers across the U.S., Japan and China to meet regularly on different topics and projects. It’s the true embodiment of Molex’s new tagline—Creating Connections for Lifeand it’s also a winning strategy for our employees, customers and partners around the world.

Director of Core Products, Micro Solutions