The Transformation from Passive Connectors to Active System Components

Author : Graham Ellis, Binder

27 February 2024

Figure 1: Via hybrid connectors with NFC, developers can use the entire installation space inside the connector housing purely for the power pins
Figure 1: Via hybrid connectors with NFC, developers can use the entire installation space inside the connector housing purely for the power pins

The interfaces used in modern medical devices need to cover an enormous variety of different functions within a very small IP-protected space. The signal and data pins, power and Earth contacts, as well as shielding and necessary protective measures, can often pose design problems for developers.

Having high-frequency electronics integrated into circular connectors can help reduce the density of electromechanical functions inside the component’s housing. It can promote miniaturisation, which is also going to be advantageous in this context, while still creating more space for optimised power transmission. 

The miniaturising of interfaces for signals, data and electrical power are an intrinsic engineering challenge. When it comes to components for medical technology, development teams face even more stringent requirements. These include failure protection and signal integrity, as well as functional, operator and patient safety - all of which make their design tasks even more complex.

Increasing functional complexity places tight physical limits on the miniaturisation of interface components. In state-of-the-art M12 circular connectors, for example, which comply with the draft standard 63171-7, power pins, protective contacts, shielding and data ports coexist in a very small space. Although this is appropriate and desirable for overall functionality, it immensely restricts freedom in the design of individual functions. In the case of medical devices, this is particularly challenging. The compactness of the connectors is thus generally limited here, and many of these interfaces have already reached the boundaries of practical feasibility.

Questioning the contacts
Traditionally, in connectors, signals, data, and power are all linked via electrical contacts - whose mechanical and chemical properties fundamentally determine the performance, quality and efficiency of transmission. In order to keep losses to a minimum, such direct electrical connection is absolutely essential for the power supply, but is not required for signals and data.

In the world of data transmission, there are proven standards for both wired and wireless connectivity. The use of the corresponding technologies depends mainly on the type and amount of data to be transferred, but also on the environmental conditions. While broadband wired Ethernet is becoming more and more established in instrumentation and automation technology, low-energy Zigbee and Bluetooth LE, or high-speed Wi-Fi, are good examples of widespread wireless communication standards. For data rates above this spectrum or in environments with electromagnetic interference (EMI) present, optical transmission methods such as fibre optics are also used.

In view of this variety of possibilities, the question arises as to what extent they can contribute to solving the problem of limited miniaturisation of interface components in combined signal, data and power connections. For example, what if signals and data could be transmitted between the male connector and the device without occupying space for electrical contacts? Without having to shield them from supply pins and supply wires? What if the IP-protected installation space inside a connector housing could in future be used exclusively - or at least much more than has been possible before - for power transfer? What if the connector could accommodate an even wider range of functions?

Formerly a connector - now a micro-device
With its NeaCo² technology demonstration, binder explored such questions and has successfully merged together the 2 worlds of electromechanical and wireless interfaces. Using NeaCo², the company’s experienced engineer staff (located in Neckarsulm, Germany) have been able to show how electro-mechanics and radio frequency (RF) electronics can be combined within a small hybrid connector. While power is transmitted via the traditional pins, near-field communication (NFC) capabilities have also implemented for wireless transmission. NFC has a significantly shorter range than either Bluetooth or Wi-Fi, but allows the NeaCo² to be used in numerous new applications. These include device identification, predictive maintenance and fault prevention. In short, binder has leveraged the integration of RF electronics to turn conventional passive hybrid connectors into active system components, so-called micro-devices.

These micro-devices offer tremendous advantages. Developers can consequently use the entire installation space within the connector for the power pins, widening their design options. And this will help them optimise the efficiency of the compact and protected power port. Electronics integration also adds options to the development of product variants. The connector itself can be equipped with additional features, but can also act as a communication node - or even as a controlling device.

The possible new features that can be integrated into the hybrid connector thanks to NFC include:
  ·  The identification of approved devices - so that only approved devices receive power.
  ·  Identifying devices for optimised power transfer.
  ·  Counting of mating cycles and recording of electrical resistance in order to predict potential faults.
  ·  The metering of transmission power and temperature.
  ·  The function as an access point for live data traffic.
  ·  Safety shutdown if operating limits get overrun.
  ·  Minimised susceptibility to errors caused by contamination, thanks to contactless data transmission.
  ·  The use of an additional data channel for migration systems.

By integrating RF electronics, engineers are able to make connectors into more sophisticated active system components. Thus, these receive new characteristics and distinctive features. The performance and communication capabilities of the hybrid interfaces may improve, and additional application scenarios arise as a result. There is the prospect for these new connectors to be employed across all industries beyond medical technology - from industrial automation to e-mobility.

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