The Modern Appetite for Data

These latest developments are timely, as our current demand for data has never been higher. From the convenience of handheld devices that provide instant access to the internet to the latest home-management systems, data is playing an increasingly central role in our everyday lives.

Enabled by high-speed connections, machines are sharing information with other machines, creating a networked environment in which data is processed and decisions are made autonomously. For many, this technology has found its primary application in the smart home. The concept of the smart home is based upon household devices that share data with each other. Whether it is a refrigerator that orders its own groceries, or a smart meter that monitors energy consumption remotely, all these innovations are made possible by the internet.


However, the personal use of data is just a small part of the data-driven infrastructure that surrounds us. The common name for this network of connected devices is the Internet of Things (IoT), and with the introduction of 5G communications technology, the potential for machine-to-machine communication has taken a great leap forward. With 5G connectivity, devices no longer need to be part of a wired network to share data at the high speed required for modern communications.

The smart revolution is transforming all areas of society. This expansion in machine-to-machine communications is allowing many different industries to take advantage of the benefits of connected devices. The ability to share and process information is starting to blur the previously clear lines between sectors as diverse as manufacturing, energy production, agriculture, and even urban planning. All can make use of the power of the smart revolution.

Designers face the challenge of selecting reliable connectors that are capable of transmitting the volume of data demanded by these latest applications. Modern data connectors have evolved since the introduction of the computer network. Early ethernet connectors were common coaxial or radio frequency (RF) types. These were cost effective and simple solutions for the modest data speeds of the time. As the demand for data grew, the ethernet network moved from simple coaxial cable to twisted pairs of cables. With the change of cable type, the interface for the computer network standardized on the modular connector, an 8-pole sometimes known as the 8P8C or RJ45 connector. This has become the most common solution for computer networks, with performance noted by a category number. The readily available category 5e and category 6 (Cat5e and Cat6) cabling delivers bandwidth of 100 MHz and 250 MHz respectively.

The RJ45 ethernet connector has been supplemented by newer connector designs. The emergence of the USB connector has also allowed users to benefit from a common connector type for all types of electronic equipment. The current USB 3.0 standard offers high transfer speeds, and the latest USB Type-C (USB-C) connector is smaller in size to make it suitable for the latest generation of handheld devices.

The Bulgin Buccaneer family of circular connectors provide secure waterproof solutions for data as well as power requirements. It includes options for the current USB, USB-C and RJ45 ethernet connectors in sealed design that provides protection up to IP68 and IP69K, making it ideal for today’s challenging data applications.

Let’s look deeper into the main drivers of the modern appetite for data.


Smart Factories

The goal of smart technology is to integrate all the different activities that contribute to the output of a system. The example of the smart factory sees supply chain, production, maintenance, and scheduling all integrated into a single entity. In a traditional factory, all these activities would have been conducted separately. In the new model, data is collected from sensors at every step of the process and shared with the whole network to help make decisions. In this way, the supply chain can ensure that raw materials are provided to the production line at the right time, and logistics can plan transportation for the finished goods just as they become ready.

The smart factory provides one of the clearest examples of this machine-to-machine communication at work. The production line process that has dominated manufacturing for a hundred years lends itself well to this type of integration. Each of the separate steps that make up the production process can be linked and unified to provide a more efficient result. It is so powerful a concept for this sector that it has even coined a new term — Industry 4.0. This describes the fourth industrial revolution in which data becomes as important a raw material as steel or cotton did two centuries ago.

The hardware that collects this information needs to be robust and reliable. The factory floor is not a benign environment, and electronic devices must be designed to withstand the high temperatures, vibration, and chemicals that are found there. Data connectors are especially vulnerable, and the RJ45 connector used for networking needs to be protected for use in these conditions. The Bulgin Buccaneer series includes RJ45 ethernet connector solutions that meet Cat 5e requirements, along with USB, USB-C, mini-USB, and micro-USB interfaces, all protected to IP68 and IP69K for a wide variety of industrial & harsh environment applications.


Smart Farming

Within the agricultural industry, there is a trend that parallels the innovations seen in manufacturing, and the result is the smart farm. Sometimes known as precision farming, this technology embraces the latest sensor, computing, and connectivity technologies, and uses data to enable farmers to maximize their yield. The information is used to monitor everything from soil conditions to the health of livestock, allowing the farmer to make the best use of resources to ensure the greatest productivity.

New technology is vital to managing this information. The reduced size of modern electronics, lower production costs, and efficient power consumption make it possible to deploy an array of sensors in the wide-open spaces of the farm. Devices can be deployed to a static location within a field or fixed to a dynamic platform such as a tractor or combine harvester, and the connectivity provided by 5G allows them to form a single network that shares and analyzes data over a large area.

The farming environment is just as harsh as the conditions found on the factory floor, although the challenges are somewhat different. Whereas industrial devices need to withstand the heat and vibration of constantly moving machinery, agricultural equipment will be deployed for months or even years in the open air, exposed to wind, rain, and sunlight. However, even the traditional farming environment is changing.

In abandoned subways and tunnels around the world, a new type of farmer is tending crops using the latest technology. Growing plants in enriched liquids rather than soil and using artificial sunlight, this new urban farm is producing food regardless of the weather or time of year.

These urban farms are not only embracing the latest smart technology, but they also rely upon it. Removing the dependence on traditional growing seasons allows these farms to provide food year-round, but to do so requires growing conditions to be monitored constantly to achieve the best yield. This would be almost impossible without smart technology, and the agricultural industry demands smart devices that can function in tough conditions, whether above ground or below it.

Whether equipment is being deployed in fields, integrated into the latest farm machinery, or forms part of the urban farming revolution, it requires data connectors that are unaffected by moisture or contamination. The IP68 and IP69K protection of the Bulgin Buccaneer connector family allows farmers to operate in even the most extreme conditions without concern for the effectiveness of their equipment.


Smart Grid

The way we create and distribute energy is also changing. Conventional power networks that have dominated the last century. Energy is generated in traditional coal, gas, or nuclear power stations which benefit from the economies of scale. These feed energy into a network or grid to be distributed over high-tension power cables for use in homes and factories.

The infrastructure associated with powering a nation is costly. Miles of above-ground power lines and substations to convert the energy into a usable voltage impose massive installation and maintenance requirements. Despite this, for many years the conventional power grid has represented the most efficient method to provide power.

New methods of producing energy are allowing local generation to become a viable alternative to the traditional network. Instead of relying on large-scale power stations, users can now generate power efficiently at a much smaller scale. Known as distributed energy resources (DER), these are typically power plants of less than 10 megawatts capacity. In addition, many DERs are using sources that reduce dependence on fossil fuels, including wind, solar, and the latest techniques such as biomass-fueled power plants.

Unlike the passive customers of the traditional power grid, paying for the power they use, the consumers of the smart grid become active participants. Information is collected in real time and shared with the network to allow the proper allocation of resources, allowing DERs to play a major role in the balance of supply and demand. These modern power solutions require connectors that can withstand conditions in the field. Customers can benefit from the Buccaneer family of connectors which provide a consistent planform and familiar design for both power and data applications.


The Smart City

For the first time, the Internet of Things is providing the framework for a complete smart city. The smart city combines all elements of modern living, from transportation and traffic management to air quality and power distribution, to create a single ecosystem that is designed to improve quality of life. Residents interact with the city using their smartphones, homes, and even their cars to allow the city’s infrastructure to be reconfigured according to need. Such elements as traffic congestion and energy distribution can be managed to provide maximum efficiency.

With a system of this scale, data will need to be collected and distributed across a large area. The hardware, from cameras to air sensors, will have much in common with the smart farm. The devices themselves must require minimal maintenance even while being exposed to the elements for long periods of time. In these circumstances, designers must select components that they can rely on to provide reliability throughout the life of the equipment.


Computing in the Cloud

Not only is new technology changing the connections required to deliver data, but it is also changing how the data is processed. This has led to the emergence of cloud computing. Cloud computing allows users to access the almost limitless resources of the internet from a handheld or mobile device. The storage and computing power are hosted in data centers, which can be located anywhere in the world. The services delivered by these data centers range from the simplest remote storage of data to the most sophisticated software applications available.

The key advantages of cloud computing are that the user is no longer tied to one location, nor are they limited by the applications installed on their device. Free from the requirements to work from a dedicated computer, the user can access information and work from wherever necessary.

This has allowed users and organizations to develop a more modern way of conducting business. Employees can work remotely while still having access to all the data and services of the organization. This has combined with the latest machine-to-machine communication that powers the Internet of Things (IoT). The IoT is enabling factories or other large-scale installations to work as single entities, sharing data to provide more efficient processes, regardless of their physical location.


Edge Computing vs Cloud Computing

Cloud computing offers users and organizations unprecedented freedom to work and develop systems that are not fixed to one location. With data shared over high-speed internet connections, and data centers delivering the computing power necessary to process information remotely, we could argue that there is no longer the need for local equipment. And yet there is huge growth in the use of sophisticated processing equipment that is installed on-site or, in the jargon, at the edge of the network. This equipment is referred to as edge computing.

In contrast to cloud computing, which relies on an internet connection to process and store data remotely, edge computing places its processing power as close to the point of use as possible. In an age where the cloud is providing access to enormous storage and computing potential, the use of edge computing might seem like a backward step.

However, the need to transmit information over long distances is one of the key reasons for the growth of edge computing. As businesses and organizations embrace the latest technology, they generate a huge volume of data, which must be collected and transmitted to the cloud. As this volume grows even larger, the need for additional services to connect to the cloud also grows, bringing with it an increase in cost. Using edge computing equipment to process much of this data locally will reduce the load on communication equipment.


Solving for Latency Through Edge Computing

Communication with the cloud requires very high data transfer speeds. While some applications are not time-sensitive, other processes require very low latency. Latency is defined as the time needed for a command to be completed. In a range of situations, from high-speed manufacturing to the employment of safety systems, the latency introduced when data is transmitted to the cloud is undesirable. By using edge computing systems, data can be processed quickly, and latency is kept to a minimum.

Edge computing also enables rapid reconfiguration. Modern manufacturers are embracing the flexibility that can be achieved by employing the latest IoT technology. Many edge computing devices are industrial controllers that can be reprogrammed and repurposed quickly, often using cloud services to deliver new software. Once configured correctly, these devices can control the local process, all while communicating with the cloud to provide real-time information about production.

It is therefore important to understand that edge and cloud computing are not mutually exclusive. Rather, they are complementary. Edge computing can provide local control, reducing latency and bandwidth requirements, while providing the cloud with the necessary information for organizations to manage their facility efficiently.

The topic of artificial intelligence (AI) has hit the headlines recently, as the latest generation of cloud-based AI tools promises to offer a major leap forward in the power of machines. In all the discussions about how AI will affect us, very few have talked about the hardware that these machines will require. However powerful these machines become, they will still need physical infrastructure to provide power and communications.

Edge computing brings artificial intelligence onto the factory floor and closer to the point of need. As a result, sophisticated equipment is installed on or around machines to create the shortest possible lag. This equipment will need protection from the harsh factory conditions, even while it is providing high-speed, secure communications that allow it to integrate with the rest of the network.


Choosing a Data Connector

Data network connectors traditionally use copper cables. Whether coaxial or twisted pairs, conventional connectors use cabling to carry signals over short-to-medium distances. However, for long distances or very high traffic systems, designers can turn to optical technology. Transmitting data as pulses of light over fibers thinner than human hairs, optical communication can be far more efficient than its copper-based equivalent. Optical fibers are manufactured from glass, drawn into incredibly thin filaments. Unlike the resistance of copper cables, the superior clarity of the glass allows signals to travel long distances with minimal data loss. In addition, the transmission of signals along fiber is secure and is not affected by electromagnetic interference (EMI).

To achieve this performance, however, optical fiber needs to be handled with care. The fibers are constructed in two layers, with the light travelling through the core by a process of total internal reflection. If the fiber is bent at too sharp an angle, signals will be lost within the fiber.

The connection points also need to be protected. Unlike electrical cable that simply needs a physical connection to transmit signals, joining two fibers together requires that they are aligned accurately. Contamination in the form of dirt or moisture between the two faces of the fibers will degrade or even prevent signals from passing from one to the other.

As a result, using fiber optics in field conditions requires that they are protected against the environment. As the mating faces of the fibers need to be clean and dry, connectors need to provide the same high level of protection as traditional copper connectors. Bulgin Buccaneer connectors are available with fiber optic interfaces, allowing the use of this high-performance technology in the tough conditions of the factory floor.


Protecting the Connection

Many of these solutions, whether using traditional, copper-based connections or optical fibers,
are intended for use outside the sheltered conditions of the office. Whether devices are deployed on a farm or at the heart of the city, the environment is the greatest challenge for designers. Exposed to a wide range of temperatures, moisture, and prolonged exposure to sunlight, these devices must protect the sensitive electronics within. Connectors present one of the most important components in providing the correct interface while creating a tight seal against the ingress of water.

Temperature extremes will also influence the protection of the equipment. Devices designed to be installed outside may be exposed to the cold of mid-winter in the Canadian north or the temperatures of equatorial Africa. This temperature variation means that designers must choose materials with care to ensure that they continue to perform at each extreme. In addition, some polymers become unstable under prolonged exposure to the ultraviolet (UV) component of natural daylight.


IP Ratings for Data Connectors

Using electronics in harsh environments requires connectors that are protected against the elements. To help designers to choose the right components, manufacturers have adopted the international system known as IP ratings. IP stands for Ingress Protection, and the system provides a shorthand that helps engineers to understand the right choice for their design.

The IP rating is formed of two digits that describe the protection provided. The first digit describes the size of the particles against which protection is provided. The highest rating is 6, which denotes protection against water. The second digit describes the level of protection provided. The most frequently used rating for connectors is IP67, which protects against everyday dust and grime. It also provides protection against limited immersion in water. IP67-rated connectors are ideal for outdoor applications that are subjected to wind and rain, such as CCTV cameras mounted to buildings.

However, for installations that require a higher level of performance, the IP68 rating provides protection against long-term immersion. Equipment destined for the military or agricultural industries provide excellent examples of this type of product.

Recent years have seen increased use of the newer IP69K classification. Products with the IP69K rating are protected against high-pressure spray, such as a those used to wash equipment after use. It has found many applications in the industrial arena, where machinery is subjected to aggressive cleaning processes. It also provides a solution for connectors in the transportation industries, where movement and harsh road conditions demand a high level of protection. The key to choosing the correct IP rating is to understand the environment.


Shell Material Selection for Data Connectors

The outer shell of any connector is one of the key components and serves several roles. The shell provides protection for the electrical contacts and insulator within. Mechanical protection against impact and damage is provided by employing robust materials. If the connector is waterproof, it is the shell that forms the greatest part of this protection. It must be designed so that rubber gaskets and O-rings will seal any gaps that might allow the ingress of water.

The material from which the connector is made therefore must be chosen with care. Metal shells offer electrical shielding and high mechanical strength. However, depending on the material chosen, they can be heavy and may risk corrosion if exposed to the elements for long periods of time. In contrast, plastic materials offer resistance against corrosion and lighter weight. However, they are unshielded, and can be at risk of damage caused by long-term exposure to sunlight. Therefore, careful consideration of the advantages of both is necessary.

The Buccaneer series of waterproof connectors from Bulgin is designed to provide superior mechanical and environmental protection. Sealed to IP68 and IP69K, the Buccaneer series is manufactured from UV-stable Polyamide, with some products available in stainless steel, offering customers high performance connectors that are suitable for a wide range of applications.


Protecting Data Connectors Against Interference

The shell also guards against other, unseen hazards. If the connector needs to be protected against electromagnetic and radio frequency interference (EMI/RFI), it must be manufactured from a conductive material that will provide shielding. Any equipment that is designed for use in outdoor or field conditions will be subjected to moisture, changes of temperature and long-term exposure to UV radiation from the sun.

Our modern environment is filled with electromagnetic radiation. There are many sources of this radiation, from entertainment and communications to the unwanted emissions from faulty equipment and long cables. This is known as Radio Frequency Interference, shortened to RFI, sometimes also known as Electromagnetic Interference (EMI).

Radio waves are part of a wide range of radiation that includes visible light, X-rays, and microwaves. This is the electromagnetic spectrum that spans a range of frequencies from very low to very high, with visible light forming just a small section in the center. This electromagnetic radiation is closely related to electrical signals.

Electromagnetism has a direct effect on the operation of electronic systems. It can affect the transmission of data and signals along cables, and almost all devices that use electricity will create electromagnetic radiation as a natural by-product of their function.

Electronic devices need to work in this environment and resist electromagnetic interference, however it may be created. Some systems, including power or low-speed signals, may be less affected than the latest high-speed communications. To protect these devices, designers provide them with shielding. Shielding takes the form of an electrically conductive covering that encloses the equipment, preventing radiation from getting in or out.

Cables are often provided with a shield, usually a braided sleeve or foil layer just underneath the outer cover of the cable itself. For this shield to work, it needs to be connected to ground to allow the unwanted signals to be safely carried away.

Connectors often form a key part of the shielding, for which the shell of the connector needs to be manufactured from a conductive material. The Buccaneer series of circular connectors are available with stainless steel shells, offering the ideal combination of mechanical strength and electrical shielding.


Bulgin: Experts in Data Connectors

The Bulgin Circular Connector family includes a comprehensive range of solutions that are ideal for smart applications. The waterproof design is sealed to IP69K, and the housings are manufactured in a choice of metal or polyamide. This is an ideal material for use in field applications as it is strong, resistant to corrosion, and stable when subjected to UV radiation. The Bulgin range offers great versatility, with options including power, signal, data and fiber optic connectivity.

The Smart Revolution is with us and will find new applications in a wide range of industries. Whether wired or wireless, the devices that form the backbone of smart technology will need connectors that provide power, data, and signal in some of the toughest environments on Earth. To cope with ever-increasing demand for these advanced services, devices will need to be maintenance-free, scalable, and easy to upgrade. Selecting connectors that will function reliably in the years to come will play a huge part in the longevity of any design. Make sure you choose a connectivity partner you can trust to deliver reliability and performance.