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Making sure you have the right connection

09 May 2016

Modularisation and miniaturisation are two key trends in the marketplace that have been around for quite a period of time, but are still gaining momentum.

Consumers and businesses alike demand products that are small, portable, and easily upgradeable, and these two design trends are only accelerating.  

Miniaturisation especially, has driven the adoption of portable devices for applications in a wide variety of industries. Test equipment, medical devices and retail are just a few areas that come to rely heavily on handheld equipment. Many applications even rely on two handheld devices, one to acquire data and another, such as a phone or tablet, to present the data and control interface. 

There are a few extra reasons for the modularisation trend. Skills shortages have led to fewer engineers on site. This shortage of trained engineers is combined with a need for almost 24/7 uptime. Modularisation helps this by making it easy to detach a malfunctioning component and attaching a working one. Modular products also allow for easier upgrades to equipment.  

What these two trends have in common is the need for a robust docking connection with good electrical conductivity. For miniaturisation, the docking station allows the handheld device to charge as well as upload and download data, and in the case of a modular device, it allows the device to dock securely and undock quickly.    

There are solutions on the market for designers, but these are mainly for consumer goods. A good example of this type of connection is the micro USB connector found in mobile phones and tablets. Although these connectors provide a good electrical connection, they tend to be quite fragile and easily broken, as well as being vulnerable to contaminants in industrial environments. Their small size makes it hard to manipulate for an operator wearing gloves, and finally they tend to be more complex to design-in for someone without extensive electronics experience. 

One potential solution is to design and build your own connection, which would involve buying conductor pins and forming a plastic casing around them to specifications. Coda Systems Ltd is one company that has a history of supplying spring loaded pins to designers for these applications. The company was originally formed to supply test probes to the UK’s electronics production industry for test equipment under its Coda-Pin brand, and still does a significant amount of sales through this channel today. When it was looking to expand it found that some of its spring loaded pins were ideal for designers looking to build docking stations and other connections. 

The pins themselves are quite complex, usually consisting of a gold-plated tubular barrel, a spring and a plunger. Often the pins will also have collars and tails for easier embedding and connection. Coda had some feedback from customers who’d had problems with the design of the plastic moulding and unsure as to the size, shape and spring pressure of pins to use. So the company decided to design and produce its own range of connector arrays, which would also save time and cut costs for customers. The connectors were designed with a wide range of pin counts to give them the flexibility to be used in more applications. 

At the start of 2013, Coda launched its first range of connector arrays, the Swift-Dock range. The spring loaded pins had a 7mm pitch with 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 pin configurations. They are available as a pair with spring loaded contacts on one connector and contact lands on the other, though each side can be supplied separately. There are also options for PCB connection and wiring on the back. A year later, the company followed up with a second launch – the Swift-Dock-mini range, which featured similar options, but with a 3mm pitch. Both ranges have easily downloadable CAD files to assist design-in. 

The devices have been relatively successful in a number of different applications. One example of how the connectors can be used for quite an unusual application was by UK Company, Spruce Design Anti Ligature Services. They specialise in providing equipment for environments where there is a risk of self-harm. The company were designing a two part anti-ligature smoke detector base assembly, which had to be fitted to a ceiling, but be disengaged quickly if an occupant tried to use it to tie a ligature around.

As the solution, Spruce Design used 4 pin, 7mm pitch Swift-Dock connectors in its ALD302 anti-ligature device, using locating tubes and magnetic attraction connecting the smoke alarm to a powered unit that had been secured to the ceiling. The Swift-Dock connector provided the electrical connection between the two. 

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