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USB-C - One Connector to Rule Them All?

The connector industry is very mature. People have been making connectors long before semiconductors came onto the scene, and connectors have been part of every major development in the electronics industry. Unlike the younger technologies, it is rare that anything truly groundbreaking happens in the world of connectors.

For over 30 years we have been hearing stories and predictions about the imminent demise of the humble Subminiature-D connector. Invented in 1952 by ITT Cannon, the D connector has been an integral part of almost every personal computer for two generations. In all that time, the design has not changed. Sure, it's been embellished and spruced up, but the D connector of today would be instantly recognisable to the engineers of the 50s. However, and here's the critical point, it still hasn't gone away. And the story of the D connector is not unusual.

At the same time, progress has seen electronics get smaller, quicker, cheaper and more powerful, and by rights, the connector should have struggled to keep pace. 20 years ago, I attended a lecture about computer networking. At the time, 100 Megabit speeds were seen as the cutting edge. An industry expert confidently predicted that we could expect no more performance from copper-based electrical connectors and that we would need to move into the world of fibre optics.

Fast forward 20 years and we live in the world of Gigabit Ethernet - still using copper connectors - and at the cutting edge of today, manufacturers like Samtec are developing connectors capable of performance in excess of 100 Gbps.

To be fair, such high-speed performance is limited to those designs that really need it. While our modern high-speed infrastructure depends on these advanced connections, they rarely come into the view of the general public.

All that started to change in the mid-1990s. At the same time that pop culture was giving us Take That, Oasis and George Michael, a connector was launched, designed to take the battle to the old D connector and deliver something a little different. It seems strange to think of a time that the letter-box shaped USB-A connector was an unknown challenger in the world of connectors. If we once again travel forward to the present day, the USB-A connector is everywhere. Computers, printers, games consoles and Raspberry Pis all use the USB connector.

But, despite the name, the USB connector is hardly universal - the original type A connector was simply too big. It is hard to imagine a cell phone or digital camera that uses a USB-A connector. There have been steps in this direction - mini-USB and micro-USB connectors have been used for many years as the interface and charging connector for devices of all varieties.

They seemed the logical choice for the phone manufacturers who had, up until then, designed their own proprietary system connector for their handsets. Nokia, Ericsson, all had their own product but as smartphones become the norm, most manufacturers tended to gravitate towards miniaturised versions of the USB connector. The one stand-out exception was Apple, who introduced their Lightning connector in 2012.

Mini-USB or micro-USB connectors are still not particularly universal. It was in an attempt to rectify this that the USB Type C (or USB-C) connector was launched.

We first started talking about the USB-C connector back in 2015. Rarely has the release of a new connector sparked the public's imagination, but in this case, there were articles in the New York Times, and some pundits were predicting that the USB-C would be the first piece of electronics owned by every person on Earth.

After 4 years, that prediction still seems far-fetched, but maybe not as far as one might think. The advantages of the USB-C connector make it hugely suitable to the current generation of electronic devices - it is slim, is capable of acting as a charging, video or data connector as the situation demands, and is easy to use. Smartphone manufacturers are turning to the USB-C as the system connector of their latest models. And critically, even Apple seems to accept that the days of their own-brand approach to connectors is coming to an end, with the announcement last year that the next generation of iPads and iPhones would use the USB-C. That is not all that surprising - Apple was one of the earliest adopters of the USB-C in their MacBook family.

The future of the USB-C connector appears to be rosy, but the consumer market is not the only area of interest. As more and more computers adopt USB-C as their standard interface, the demand for industrialised USB-C connectors will grow.

The old USB-A has long been used in this environment. It is not a waterproof connector by design, but user demands for this type of product to work in harsh, contaminated environments led a number of connector manufacturers to provide a solution. In most cases, the approach was simply to select a circular connector shell, one that was by design waterproof and fit a standard USB-C connector. A similar approach was taken for solutions requiring RJ45-type networking connectors.

These connectors tend to be quite bulky, as the USB-A connector itself is quite bulky. However, each connector manufacturer has taken a different approach, generally dictated by the type of connector that they know best. Therefore, Amphenol has the USB-Field connector based on a MIN-STD-38999 connector design, Bulgin has pursued a version of its successful Buccaneer connector family, and even Neutrik, well known for its audio products, has developed its own version using the audio XLR connector. Once again, it is hard to apply the word "universal" to this market.

I am hugely interested to see what direction will be taken by manufacturers who want to sell USB-C connectors into these harsh environment applications. There have been a few early attempts - both TE Connectivity and Amphenol have developed compact USB-C connectors designed for IP67 applications.

Both approaches are very interesting as they do not follow the path trodden by earlier USB-A connectors fitted into existing connector shells. However, both manufacturers have designed their own concept meaning that once again, this is not a universal solution. It will be fascinating to see how other manufacturers solve this problem.

I think that there can be no doubt that USB-C is here to stay. I am also in no doubt that it truly is a "super-connector" - a very clever design that can perform myriad tasks, and can be manufactured relatively cheaply in huge quantities. As to whether it will truly conquer the world and be the one connector to rule them all, I think it is a little too early to say.

Connector Geek is Dave in real life. With 28 years in the industry, Dave likes talking about connectors almost as much as being a Dad to his two kids. He may still be a kid at heart himself...

28 Mar 2019, 11:24

Comments

March 29, 2019 16:48

I love USB C! It saves that awkward constant swapping around side to side moment we all get when trying to connect up devices!! My phone has it, my monitor has it and soon will my new laptop. It's the Universal Apple Lightning cable I've been waiting for, but much more!