Creating challenges and opportunities for connector manufacturers

10th February 2017
Lanna Cooper

The Internet of Things is a common topic, as the next great wave of technology which will drive the electronics industry forward with 50 billion devices connected to the Internet by 2020, according to some experts. Alan Jermyn explains.

While not everyone agrees which ‘things’ will succeed with consumers, wearable technology is expected to become one of the big sectors in terms of the volumes of product that will be demanded. Analyst ABI Research recently reported that 50 million wearable devices, including activity monitors and smart watches, were delivered in 2013. It went on to forecast that 90 million devices will ship this year and projected sustained growth for years to come. The table of contents for this report from the firm gives a useful snapshot of the main applications that ABI forecasts will drive the wearables revolution.

Another analyst, Markets and Markets, said that the market for wearable computers (most wearable electronics falls into this category) will grow from $2.7bn in 2012 to $8.3bn in 2018, with the split between Asia, Europe, and North America roughly equal. This is going to be another truly global business and the dominant proportion of revenues will come from consumer applications, with sports and leisure accounting for a very large share.

Market Revenue, by application, 2012-2018 ($Million)

An IHS Electronics & Media report published in 2013 details five applications of wearable technology and 23 product categories within these.

So how can connector manufacturers capitalise on the opportunities offered by the wearable electronics sector?

The design challenges are considerable. Connectors for wearable electronics need to be small and lightweight of course - but there are many applications that already demand this. In some instances they may need to be weatherproof too, and many of them will also need to be capable of being connected and disconnected frequently without the integrity of the connections becoming compromised.

Here are a few interesting snippets that give of glimpse of what’s already here, and what’s to come:

Where the connectors are to be used on clothing, they’ll have to withstand washing machine cycles, or be removable. Where the connectors will be washed, they need to be waterproof when they are open, not just when they are connected. And how do you prevent water being trapped inside when the connectors are re-joined after a wash?

The IET article describes an experimental connector developed at the University of Loughborough, UK, for use in clothing. It uses a hook and loop fastening mechanism for connecting to transmission lines via conducting yarn. We think of wearable electronic devices as being small things, like watches or pocket-sized items, but the relatively large size of clothes means that building antennas into textiles has its advantages. The ability to use larger antennas extends the lower end of the frequency spectrum that can be used for wireless communications. Also, larger antennas may radiate more effectively in some designs, requiring less power from transmitters to achieve a given transmission distance and data throughput. This will extend the battery life in what’s becoming known as ‘smart clothing’.

Hook and loop connectors

Hook and loop connectors for transmissions lines in textiles, developed at the University of Louoghborough, UK

The Bloomberg News video below (from 2011) looks at the development of bendable circuit boards for use in wearable electronics. It gives an entertaining insight into just a few of the potential applications and raises some interesting questions about how connector manufacturers are going to innovate to capture a share of the market for the new wearable devices on the horizon.

The article in EE Journal describes IP68-rated waterproof coaxial connectors for use in wearable medical devices, including cochlear ear implants. The future opportunities for these kinds of connector will become much broader - every wearable electronic device needs connectivity and it’s usually going to be wireless.

Finally, the New York Times piece brings a whole new meaning to the term ‘smart shirt’. It’s about a shirt with an in-built Internet-connected computer that not only monitors what you’re doing but advises you when you should stop. The connectors are not described, except to say that the computer can be unplugged when you need to wear the shirt.

The wearable electronics market is set for explosive growth. It will be fascinating to see how connector manufacturers rise to the challenge and the opportunity.

The Avnet Abacus connector range includes products from leading manufactures including; Amphenol, AVX, FCI Electronics, Hirose, Molex, Samtec, TE Connectivity, and 3M.

For more information, click here.

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