Specifying Connectors for Use in Demanding Environments

Mark Patrick
Specifying Connectors for Use in Demanding Environments
With hardware being deployed in a wide variety of different application settings, many of them exhibiting harsh environmental conditions, ensuring that the operational reliability of the interconnection components utilised can often prove to be a challenging task.

When incorporated into industrial equipment connectors and cabling will often need to deal with the effects of shock or vibration. If these items are placed outdoors they may be exposed to extreme temperatures or water. It is important, therefore, to have a good understanding of what differentiates a standard connector from a connector that is suitable for harsh environments

The key factors that connectors targeted at use in harsh environments will need to exhibit resilience against are as follows:

  • Rough Handling - In some cases, connectors may need to be mated/unmated many times per day (often hurriedly). This increases the risk of mechanical wear and tear being witnessed, which can consequently shorten the component’s operational lifespan and lead to heavy costs relating to its repair/replacement. This is one of the reasons that having a robust coupling mechanism is critical for connectors in harsh environments. There are many different types of connector couplings available - including ring, twist locking, threaded, bayonet, push-pull and quick disconnect. All have different attributes that make them suitable for deployment in uncompromising application environments.
  • Water/Dust - When situated in industrial or outdoor settings then dust/dirt may be present. This can potentially impinge on the operational effectiveness of the connector unless appropriate steps are taken. In relation to water, this can cover a multitude of different possibilities, including rain, water vapour and even submersion of the connector, but likewise action will be needed to make sure the electrical connection is protected accordingly. As a consequence, if connectors are to be used in places where exposure to dust or water is likely to prove a problem, then they should have an Ingress Protection (IP) rating associated with them. IP67 offers protection from dust and immersion between 15cm and 1m, while IP68 provides protection from dust and long-term immersion up to a specified depth. IP69K offers protection from dust, plus close-range high pressure and high temperature spray downs. As a result it is optimised for applications in the food processing and medical sectors, where equipment must be sanitised on a regular basis. Rubber seals can be incorporated into the connection coupling so as to keep the connection watertight if this is deemed necessary.
  • Temperature Levels - The operational temperature can vary substantially and this (along with dust and water) can have a detrimental influence over time. It is therefore important that the connector is made from appropriate materials.
  • Explosive Environments - In petrochemical or industrial applications there is the prospect of certain substances present bringing about an explosion. This must be given careful consideration when selecting connectors.
  • Pressure - Power, data and fibre optic cabling are all employed in aircraft, in space and even at the bottom of the ocean. Under such circumstances, the pressures involved can be extremely high. The connectors selected for applications of this kind need to be robust enough to cope with this.
  • Salinity - The elevated levels of salt content in water and air within coastal and marine environments can have a major impact on connector operation, due to corrosion and calcareous growth. Consequently, selection of constituent materials is yet again critical, in order to ensure that the connector’s construction is fundamentally robust enough to deal with this. 

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With regard to applications where the connector is likely to be subjected to extreme temperatures, water vapour, dust, etc., a corrosion-resistant metal housing may be needed. In other circumstances, where the connectors need to be lightweight (such as in avionics), high-temperature resistant plastic composites might prove to be more suitable. The shape of the connector, thread pattern or mating mechanism, as well as the positioning of pins can also be key factors in creating interconnects that deliver high degrees of ruggedness and reliability. Circular connectors provide better ease of mating/un-mating. In addition, they are much easier to seal and have a ‘scoop proof’ arrangement which means that damage to the pins can be avoided if the connector is mis-mated (as the female receptacles are located deeper in the housing).

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