Emerging technologies such as wireless power are not only enabling wireless charging of phones and electronic volts but can also be applied to create a new category of "contactless connectivity.” Immune to vibration, pollutants and harsh environments and unconfined by movement restrictions, advancements in connectivity technology no longer have the limitations of mechanical contact-based connectors. This can change the way we connect in a wide variety of applications, and the possibilities are literally limitless.

This new disruptive category is defined as the system that can electrically connect and disconnect at least two subsystems, behaving similarly to a regular contact-based connectivity system, but without any electrically conducting contacts between these subsystems. Contactless connectivity enables the transfer of (data) signals and power, from one subsystem to the other subsystem, as soon as the subsystems to be connected are brought into their so-called mating range.

This breakthrough emerged from market demands for miniaturization and decentralization. What has developed is an application allowing for the bi-transmission of data, which can change the way we connect in a wide variety of applications. It is vital for improving the ease of integration and networking in the industrial industry, Industry 4.0 or the industry’s move toward smart factories, intelligent machines and networked processes, and real-time data.  Contactless connectivity is still a relatively new concept, so there are not yet many products on the market in this space. 

Contactless connectivity enables new applications and solutions where traditional cables and connectors fail – in multiple application areas. First, it significantly reduces maintenance costs, a key driver in improving efficiency.  By not applying the same amount of wear and tear to the connecting ends of cables, shelf life is dramatically improved.  There is also the added benefit of hygienic efficiency, as it is imperative to disinfect cables from each other after every use, a time-consuming process that can now be eliminated due to the contactless feature.

Second, contactless connectivity adds tremendous value to projects being executed in harsh environments.  By way of inductively coupled devices, contactless connectivity enables one to operate reliably underwater, in vacuum chambers, ultra clean environments, surrounded by grease or mud, or on equipment that’s spinning at high rpm. Because there are no moving parts to wear out, these devices are virtually maintenance-free—making this a very attractive technology for our client base.  Contactless connectivity reduces and even removes the risks associated with certain applications, such as fire from offshore platforms, water-damage from manufacturing, or explosive gases when working in harsh environments.

Another benefit for operating in harsh environments is the gap feature of these platforms, generated from dynamic tuning, that can adapt to variable distances.  Harsh environments can inflict pressure or force on applications via wind, water pressure, or other methods.  Having a platform that can transmit data wirelessly without losing signal when forced into physically difficult angles allows for adaptability in even the roughest of atmospheres.  It is also a feature that is not currently feasible with regular connectors. 

The ability to scale this breakthrough to any size or type of application is a staple of contactless connectivity, and a useful feature to technicians seeking adaptability. Contactless connectivity platforms, such as TE Connectivity’s ARISO, are completely seamless with regular cable connectors, assuring an easy intra-platform transition.  Relevant applications can be as small as a centrifuge or milling machine and as large as a printing drum, or any other vibration areas in general. 

From an interior design perspective, contactless connectivity can revolutionize architecture.  Innovators have much more freedom to exert creativity when assembling interior structures, machinery, furniture, or other movable objects due to the contactless feature.  The ability to now transfer power and signal through fluids and walls means that rooms and building structures no longer need to be built around the location of electrical ports.  With regard to safety concerns, the platform’s magnetic coupling is able to detect metal between connectors and immediately cease the transmission of power and data signals, which prevents overheating and electrical malfunctions.

Perhaps most importantly, this technology produces tremendous cost savings by reducing maintenance and downtime.  There are several practical examples of how contactless connectivity solutions are being applied today in real-world scenarios. 

Factory automation
Contactless technology will reduce supply chain time of assembly lines in factories.  With turning tables, for instance, one can enable both the contactless powering of the device as well as data transmission back to the power side.  This triggers the wireless rotation of these tables in conjunction to shifts on the adjacent conveyor belts. The process allows the tables to retract and subsequently replace assembly parts for design implementation, modifications and maintenance without power interruption.

We’re also becoming increasingly reliant on robotics to power daily operations. Whether for hazardous environments too dangerous for humans, like radioactive clean up or bomb disarmament, or routine industrial settings, including automobile manufacturing or the food and beverage industry, robots can perform a wide range of tasks in diverse situations.  Seventy percent of unplanned downtime in robotic operations is typically caused by connector or cable failure.  By eliminating the physical contact between connectors these cables forgo any friction damage that would be encountered under normal circumstances, significantly decreasing maintenance costs. 

Furthermore, cable assemblies in their current state hinder the ability for 360-degree rotation in machines.  Contactless connectivity platforms integrate contactless couplers into one side of the robot joint and place its counterpart within mating range on the other side, allowing for a full rotation.  The flexibility provided greatly enhances machine productivity.

Injection molding
Popular since the 1940s, injection molding has become integral to the production of a variety of components for the automotive, aerospace, medical, and consumer products industries. Despite its widespread adoption, the process has mechanical limitations that can be solved with contactless connectivity.

Constructed of two symmetrical or asymmetrical halves, a mold is injected with molten plastic materials which then cool and solidify to the design of the cavity, ultimately releasing the formed product or part. With molds moving repeatedly to mix materials, sensors gauging temperature and pressure, and cooling systems finishing the process, many potential failure points must be monitored and addressed. During the process, one half of the mold remains fixed while the other half moves either horizontally or vertically. The movements—sometimes millions in a single manufacturing process—are enabled by physical cables, which experience significant wear and tear, and require time-consuming and costly maintenance or replacement.

Contactless couplers eliminate the need for mechanical connections, replacing them with inductively coupled devices that transmit power and data across small distances without contact. Furthermore, molds often need to be replaced, either due to wear, or sometimes simply to accommodate the production of another product or part. In a traditional mechanical design, molds must be carefully disconnected from the cables. The process takes time and requires the skills of a trained operator to perform the replacement. With contactless connectivity technology, molds can be replaced simply and quickly.

Equipment safety and hygiene
Many industries, such as food and beverage, rely heavily on manufacturing to produce high-quality products efficiently. Keeping the equipment sanitary is not only essential to maintaining flavor quality, it is also critical to eliminating potential contamination. Manufacturing equipment typically relies on mechanical connectors to transmit power and data via electricity.  However, because of stringent requirements for maintaining sanitary conditions when it comes to food and beverage production and processing, mechanical connectors pose unique challenges. Bacteria can form easily and connectors are also very sensitive to dust. Equipment must be kept spotless not only to ensure quality flavor and taste, but also to maintain functionality. Given the electrical flow of current, water cannot be used in the cleaning process, making it both cumbersome and expensive.

Contact connectivity technology eliminates the need for mechanical connections, replacing them with inductively coupled devices that transmit power and data across small distances without contact. During cleaning, when mechanical couplers are unmated or disconnected, water can cause short-circuiting, corrosion or other damage. Without electricity, water can be safely used to clean contactless couplers, greatly reducing the cost and time required for the job. Expensive solvents are virtually eliminated and downtime is minimized.

Contactless connectivity is enabling unbridled innovation. Whether it’s overcoming harsh environments where vibration or ocean depths dare to impede; solutions that adhere to sterilization and regulatory requirements where life and health are at stake; or technologies that take into account cost pressures inherent to consumer products manufacturing, contactless connectivity does not adhere to old design parameters. Constraints are a thing of the past as the industry looks toward tomorrow’s opportunities.

Benjamin Mang is TE Connectivity’s Product Manager for ARISO Contactless Connectivity.  He has been with the company since 2011 and holds a master’s degree in business administration with a focus in mechanical engineering.

Dirk-Jan Riezebos is the Advanced Development Leader in TE Connectivity’s Industrial Solutions department.  He has been with the company since 2010 and holds a master’s degree in electrical engineering.