When engineers set about developing ultra-lightweight electronic systems for defence and aerospace equipment, small connectors always feature heavily in the design process.

Because of the harsh environments these types of equipment must operate in, the demands placed on these small connectors tend to be tough. They need to be robust, rugged and reliable, despite their small size. Finding a trusted partner to provide small connectors that are high-performance and reliable is therefore critical in these applications.

As a leader in the industry, Omnetics Connector Corporation develops and supplies micro-miniature and nano-miniature electronic connectors and interconnect solutions for customers in the defence and aerospace sectors. Scott Unzen, Omnetics’ Director of Marketing & Market Development, told us more about the company and how its solutions deliver for clients.

Starting out in connector solutions

Launched a little over 35 years ago, Omnetics began from a combination of a few different companies. According to Unzen, it was a customer of one of those companies – a manufacturer of supercomputers – who first approached them to ask for help developing a new connector solution. Omnetics’ lead engineer at the time was able to help create the Flex Pin contact connector, which Omnetics still uses today.

“With that, the Omnetics operation was born,” says Unzen. “We started by focussing on micro and nano connectors, but now we also focus on high-reliability connectors. In our market, customers require connectors that will withstand high shock, vibration, G-forces and extreme temperature cycles.”

Unzen explains that for many years, Omnetics operated with simple strip connectors. Then, in the 1990s, the military began pushing for an industry standard for the Nano-D connector, and Omnetics participated in the creation of what became the MIL-STD-32139. “I believe there are currently just eight companies that are qualified to produce to that standard, of which Omnetics is one,” he says.

The industries Omnetics operates in include all those in which high-reliability connectors are required. Its connectors are on many of the satellites that fly on the launch vehicles that are transporting the new CubeSats up to space, for example. Omnetics connectors have also been to Mars a few times – and even to Saturn.

In the defence industry, Omnetics connectors are used in a wide variety of applications, whether it’s for gimbals, radar applications, missile systems, or soldier-worn communication devices where small, high-reliability connectors are needed to reduce the weight of the connector and cable. Then there are unmanned systems and ground robotics. The company lists the likes of Raytheon, Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, BAE, Thales, Airbus, Rheinmetall, and MBDA among its key customers.

“When you look at the markets we’re in, it’s kind of an interesting dynamic,” says Unzen. “We have military specifications that define a baseline minimum performance requirement, and Omnetics meets the specifications for MIL-STD-83513 – which is a Micro-D connector – and the specifications for MIL-STD-32139. We have also built connectors that perform to higher criteria. Whether there’s a specification or not, we build and test all our products to the same exact standards.”

Customer service integral to success

Unzen adds that a key selling point for Omentics is the customer service it provides. “Because we’re dealing with very small connectors, a lot of customers come to our form factor when they don’t have the weight budget; they need smaller-size, lighter weight, high-performance connectors. If they need to modify the connector to meet the requirements of their design, we can respond very quickly and competitively. So, one key selling point is customer service, and being able to deliver application-specific designs that meet our customer’s demands and exceed their expectations.”

In the military, Unzen explains that it used to be organisations themselves building their own technology, which takes a long time. Because technology in the consumer market has evolved far quicker, and is more advanced, there is now a push amongst military organisations to take certain components from the consumer space, then “ruggedise” them and make them more secure.

Meanwhile, more customers in the consumer space are moving towards smaller connectors because the form factor of everything involved is smaller. If you retrofit the electronics of old equipment to add in more functions and capabilities, for example, then using smaller components means you can fit more into the space of what used to do just one thing.

Omnetics is well positioned to take advantage of the growing demand for small connectors. “We were doing small when small was niche, when companies only used us because they couldn’t find anything else,” says Unzen. “Back then, for us, it was about finding the right designer that ran into a problem that we could help solve. Now, a lot of people are having to learn how to change processes and work with smaller systems. It involves redesigning your circuit boards with smaller trace lines.”

Unzen says the growing trend of digitising old analogue systems also presents opportunities for Omnetics. “I like to compare it to the evolution in television,” he says. “With analogue, if there was interference, you had some lines or static across your screen – you could still see the action, it just wasn’t a clear picture. With digital televisions came much clearer pictures, but if there’s an issue with the signal, the image pixelates and freezes.

“Similar challenges can be seen with connectors, so it’s important for us to configure our connectors to meet the protocol requirements of the digital world. You see a lot more shielding and filtering and back shells to help protect the system from environmental noise. It’s a growing challenge for any manufacturer involved in building systems that can be relied upon in environments where failure is not an option.”