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Designing Connectors for the Smart Factory

Connector Geek
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The birth of the Single Pair Ethernet (SPE) standard has given us a new type of connector.  As we have seen from previous articles, SPE is the new system that will bring Ethernet to all areas of the Smart Factory. This has created the need for a new connector that is small enough to be fitted directly to the smallest elements of the factory such as sensors. At the same time, this connector needs to be robust and easy to install. 

Connector design is often a process closer to evolution than revolution. Many products on the market today have been around in similar form for many years, and sometimes not even used in the role for which they were designed. To witness a brand-new connector being introduced is rare. 

The introduction of this new connector gives us a glimpse into how a designer creates a brand-new standard, especially one that is likely to become so common in the industrial arena. Looking at the challenges will give us a clear understanding of the design process.

Familiarity

One of the challenges faced by manufacturers who hope to introduce a new connector into the market is familiarity. Even in an industry that moves as quickly as electronics, designers will often be nervous to move away from tried and trusted solutions. Nowhere is this truer than in the choice of connectors.

For many years, the connector for computer networking has been the clear plastic 8-pole modular connector, often called the RJ45*. Used in huge numbers in structured wiring installations, the modular connector is a known and trusted solution. This is as true in the industrial environment as in the office building. The enterprise and control layers of the smart factory depend on networked computers. An SPE connector should try to replace the modular connectors installed in offices and factories around the world.

The role of the SPE connector becomes clearer when we look at the factory floor. The factory floor has seen a wide variety of solutions being used to integrate equipment into the network, often dictated by the manufacturer of the machines themselves. This places additional burdens on installers and maintainers, who need different tools, components, and training to connect each device. 

One of the key goals of an SPE standard should be to reduce this variety and simplify the connectivity of the factory floor. A standard connector allows the installer and maintainer to reduce the equipment and training they need. Terminating or repairing the connector is simplified and quickly becomes familiar, regardless of the device that needs to be connected.  In addition, a standardized connector will make the task of adding new devices to the network simple, reducing installation costs and downtime.  The familiarity that standardized connectors provide can bring significant financial benefits.

Reliability

Connector designers need to have an in-depth understanding of the conditions in which their products must function. Unlike the relatively pleasant environment of the office, a factory floor can be a harsh and unforgiving place. Equipment can be subjected to anything from shock and vibration to aggressive chemicals and high-pressure cleaning. Under these conditions, connectors must be protected to ensure they work reliably.

Several of the connectors designed for industrial networking are designed for these tricky conditions. Amongst the most popular are the circular connectors of the M8 and M12 families. These slim, robust connectors have been used for many years in industrial control applications, and provide up to IP67 protection, making them resistant to splashed or sprayed water, and even limited immersion. 

To provide a desirable alternative to these established solutions, SPE needs to offer connectors with similar performance. In the case of a 2-pole SPE connector, the standard interface can be small enough to fit inside an M8 or M12 body. This will allow SPE connectors to offer the same protection against harsh conditions.

By incorporating an existing connector format into the SPE standard, designers have made it easier for installers to adopt this new solution. Not only will installers be more comfortable using familiar technology, but the use of an existing connector size will allow the re-use of existing panels, removing another barrier to adoption. 

Introducing the T1 Connector

The T1 connector from HARTING is the chosen SPE connector for industrial applications.  HARTING has 7 decades of experience in creating connectors for the demanding environment of the factory floor, along with other industrial applications.  By using their experience creating market-leading connectors such as the HAN rectangular series, HARTING has been able to understand the needs of the industrial user. As a result, the HARTING T1 connector is currently the only Single Pair Ethernet connector approved by the IEC-63171-6 standard for use in the industrial environment.

The HARTING T1 is a 2-pole connector that has been designed from the outset to use dedicated single pair networking cable. The T1 connector is small enough that it can be fitted to compact devices such as sensors and drive controllers, and yet robust enough to survive the demanding environment of the factory floor. 

Not only will it allow the full connectivity of the factory floor from the sensor to the cloud, but the SPE connector is also designed to provide power to the connected device. Using the Power over Data Line technique (PoDL), the T1 connector can deliver 50 Watts of power, removing the need to power devices locally and greatly reducing the requirement for cable and equipment.

This ability to combine data and power in a single, small-diameter cable is offering customers enormous possibilities to save weight. Equipment that is required to move rapidly or frequently such as industrial robots can benefit from the weight saving offered by Single Pair Ethernet. As a lightweight solution, SPE can help to reduce the energy requirements for operation and improve the maintenance burden that heavier systems can cause.

The impact that the lightweight T1 connector can have is being felt outside the traditional factory environment. As we have seen in a previous article, the capabilities of SPE have found willing customers in the rail industry, where weight savings can offer significant financial benefits when compared to traditional cabling systems.

T1 has been designed to enable rapid adoption by operators. Using established termination techniques, the T1 will be familiar to installers who have used previous generations of connectors. In its simplest form, the T1 is available as an IP20 device that is smaller than all of the connectors that it is intended to replace. However, as we have seen, the standard 2-pole interface will be available in M8 and M12 connector housings, enabling easy adoption without the need to re-tool and re-design.

The T1 family is now available from RS Components as PCB-mounting connectors (203-9051) , pre-terminated patch leads (203-9057) , and as pre-prepared cables (203-9064) ready for termination.

HARTING is a leading manufacturer of industrial connectivity. Take a look at the T1 family and learn more about how the only IEC-approved industrial SPE connector can revolutionize your factory network.

*If you want to be super-geeky about it, the 8-pole connector used for networking isn’t quite an RJ45 connector. The RJ45 refers to a specific standard, a connector fitted with a polarizing tab. The difference is small but significant, so in this article, we’ll call it the modular connector. I told you I was a geek.

Connector Geek is Dave in real life. After three decades in the industry, Dave still likes talking about connectors almost as much as being a Dad to his two kids. He still loves Lego too. And guitars.

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