Electronic connector experts Omnetics sets itself apart from more traditional suppliers by collaborating closely with customers, and by getting to know their specific needs and challenges to build bespoke solutions that really work.

The company’s collaborative approach is perhaps most effective when working to create “harsh environment” connector solutions. These are often bespoke solutions, built for customers in key sectors like aerospace, defence, energy and medical, which, due to their application, must be enhanced with special features to ensure they continue to work effectively in extreme, or “harsh”, environments.

Harsh environment connectors may be required to work at very high temperatures, for instance, or be able to withstand repeated shock and vibration. Some harsh environment connectors must work well at high speeds, or altitudes, like those within aerospace or space sector applications. Others, meanwhile, need to be especially resistant to dirt or moisture ingress, like those in military or oil & gas sector applications.

Travis Neumann, Special Projects Manager at Omnetics, considers harsh environment connectors to be any needing enhanced features that don’t fall within normal military (MIL) standards for connectors. “Our connectors are made to standards MIL-DTL-83513 for Micro D’s, and MIL-DTL-32139 for Nano D’s,” he says.

“When we talk about harsh environment connectors, for me that means solutions that have requirements above and beyond those industry standards. It might mean the customer needs connectors with a wider temperature range than -40 to 125°C, for example, or they may need additional sealing requirements to increase resistance to dust and moisture ingress.

“If the connectors are going to be on board a ship, and need to work at or near the sea, for instance, the customer could need additional corrosion resistance. Or, if the customer is an aircraft operator, they may have greater EMI-shielding requirements. These are all common customer needs when it comes to harsh environments.”

Establishing exactly what the customer needs from their solution can be the hardest part of the process of designing, manufacturing, and then delivering a successful harsh environment product. Omnetics works on a case-by-case basis, taking the time to truly understand a customer’s challenges and emphasising the value of clear and open communication.

“It all depends on the customer,” says Scott Fitzharris, Design Engineer at the company. “Some already know everything they want from their product, and arrive ready with a checklist for us to work through. Others can’t tell you a lot about their needs but can at least say where the product will be applied, and how it needs to perform.

“Then, some customers know they need something but don’t specifically know what that solution is. That’s when you really do have to collaborate. If the customer can’t provide enough information, we’ll work with them to find a solution. We may build them a sample, for example, just to try it out.  Our customer can review the aspects and provide feedback to those which did or didn’t perform well. Then, we can change the specifications until we get the right results.

To emphasise the complexities of building bespoke connector solutions for certain harsh environments, Fitzharris provides an example of working with a company in the aerospace sector. “The customer came to us and just said they needed EMI (electromagnetic interference) shielding, and that’s it,” he says.

“With such a basic level of information to go on, it’s much harder to solve a customer’s problem. EMI-shielding can be a complex issue, so we asked all the questions we could think of about what they wanted. Where would the connectors be exposed? What exactly will they be doing? Will the shielding need to carry signals? Are you worried about whether they’re radiating or emitting? Are you worried about receiving issues? In the end, we found a solution and built a product the customer was happy with.”

“When building bespoke products, there’s often a trade-off between complexity and flexibility,” adds Neumann. “Striking a balance gets more difficult when the customer is unclear about what they want. When you’re adding layers and layers of features onto standard connectors to meet harsh environment requirements, not only does this increase costs, but it can also reduce flexibility. The customer may need that flexibility in the application.”

Omnetics is innovating rapidly in this area. With every new harsh environment project, Fitzharris and Neumann continue to learn, discovering new lighter or more durable materials to build harsh environment solutions with, for example, or more efficient and reliable methods of manufacturing them. “It’s definitely a growth area for our business,” says Neumann. “The number of harsh environments requests we’re getting has increased in the last few years, and there’s no sign of that changing.”