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Podcast: Phil Heft from Memcon on Connectors and Printed Electronics

In this episode, we talk to Phil Heft, the Business Development Manager of North America for Memcon. Phil’s years of experience have led him to be an expert in all things connectors: connector assembly, purpose, and the functionality of connector systems. We sat down with Phil to discuss his thoughts on the evolution of his field, some things he thinks designers should keep in mind when it comes to connectors, and some of the emerging technologies he’s excited about.

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  • Phil started his career selling for the printed electronic membrane switch industry and stayed with it for half his career as a manufacturing rep. 
  • Over the past 6 years, he has been with Memcon, an international company focused on printed and flex electronics and supplier of tools and manufactured components for that field.  
  • Memcon has headquarters in Europe, the United States, and Asia and is filled with experts in the field designing and manufacturing products that are fresh and low-cost to help strengthen the field as much as possible. 
  • Phil discussed how the field has evolved over the course of his career. For example, in the early 80s when he first started selling and the industry was in its infancy, it would take 10-12 weeks for a prototype. In today’s world, a product would be in its second production order by the 12-week mark. 
  • Phil discussed the evolution of the products and sophistication of manufacturing, as well as the changing customer base and evolution of what printed electronics are today. He discussed how it’s a different and exciting world to be in today. 
  • Phil’s expertise lies in the often overlooked arena of connectors. Connectors are an interface product. They need a way to go from a printable product onto a board of some type either as a direct meeting or interface cable going into a ground wire. 
  • Traditional printed circuit board connectors were an easy way for printed electronics to get involved, so circuit board connectors had a few mainstay products that crimped into copper and came in either through a conductor pad or a circuit board or around the pad on reentry. 
  • Then, it was clear that connector technology needed to improve and has definitely improved from there. 
  • One of the biggest changes Phil notes is that, as membrane switches have become more sophisticated, the number of traces that occur has increased. 
  • The oldest technology and most popular on connectors is still the same 2.5mm pitch spacing between conductors. That’s fine with 5, 6, or 10 conductors. The problem comes when you have a lot of embedded components. 
  • The trend is to go from 100,000th on a connector to 50,000th at 1.27mm. The other trend is trying to use ZIF and lift connectors. These are wonderful on one level because they already have the tail embedded into the connector on the board. But the problem is placing that tail into the connector can be a challenge. It creates a limitation of how thin you can print your trace lines on the pad.
  • When it comes to the design side of the flexible circuit industry or customers who want to transfer from rigid circuit to flexible circuit, they need to keep in mind what type of connector system is best for their needs. 
  • If you are designing an enclosed system, you can use a ZIF connector. But if dealing with an interface product in a medical situation and it may be disposable, you need something that will meet the proper electrical characteristics but will be removed from the product without too much strategy. 
  • The most traditional system you can go with is a friction-type system with a female connector meeting a pin header where just the contact springs will be hugging onto the male pin. It’s better than nothing, but can inadvertently be pulled off pretty easily.
  • Alternatives include systems that can give some retention. For example, some systems have a bump on the housing that will interact with a header with a hole in it for a little retention.
  • Latching is probably the second most popular because users like the click of engagement and you can’t remove it without pressing the latch. This type of system works well in many situations including on a lot of medical devices.
  • Locking systems come from a European standard that meets a profile header so the only way you can remove it is by spreading the walls of the header it is meeting. This type of system is not popular in the U.S., but you will see it in European markets. 
  • All systems require assembly equipment; Memcon's products are all done with mass termination with the contacts on the part. This method speeds up the assembly process and keeps the material flat. 
  • Phil is very excited about the two-part system. This system uses the same female contact and can engage the plastic to do any of the features above (standard, latching, housing, etc.) off the same base female contacts. This system speeds up the operation from up to 200 crimps an hour to 600 crimps an hour. Putting on housing will be 300-600, making the yield of assembly higher.
  • In the end, there will be a performance test to verify the connector is functioning properly. The current recommended AQL level of testing is 3%, but the operator should be able to see the contacts folding over on the other side. If they see the contacts, they should be nearly perfect. Once you get into military environments, however, they will want higher AQL levels.  
  • The evolving world of sensors is exciting for Memcon. Phil always gets excited about emerging technologies. For example, printable solar cells and making printable batteries effective and cost-efficient.
  • As a supplier, the one constant challenge is keeping costs down. After all, this technology will only work if people can afford to pay for it. 
  • Another challenge, common worldwide and in many industries, is the current supply line issues. Memcon has seen a decrease in these issues, but still struggles a bit with logistics. 

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