Modular connectors explained

What engineers need to know about modular connectors

When developing an electronic or automated system, achieving maximum efficiency and cost-effectiveness is one of the key responsibilities that design engineers will need to fulfil. Sourcing the right connectors and components plays an important role in achieving this goal and delivering the greatest value and performance for the chosen application.

The emergence of modular connector technology in recent years has delivered considerable benefits in helping engineers to meet their system design goals. These multipurpose components provide notable advantages compared to older-style component cables and wires, particularly in terms of flexibility, cost-effectiveness and manual maintenance requirements.

This guide from Northern Connectors explains the basics of how modular connectors can function within a system, and the various advantages they can deliver for businesses.

Modular connectors - the basics

Modular connectivity solutions are not necessarily new, but they have become more widely used as the technology has evolved and become more sophisticated. Emerging in the late 1960s and early 1970s in response to a growing need for more flexible and user-friendly methods of power transfer for industrial systems, these connectors have helped usher in a new era of plug-and-play connectivity.

In non-modular setups, component cables and wires need to be installed in permanent hardwired configurations by specialist machine builders, responsible for testing at each input and output point individually prior to installation. This results in highly complex and non-movable configurations, and creates a number of disadvantages and limitations, including:

●          Labour-intensive setup process, with a strong dependency on specialist knowledge and skills

●          Time-consuming disassembly, reassembly, rewiring and retesting processes when relocating hardwired machinery, again requiring the expertise of a licensed electrician

●          Complex system designs with hundreds of hardwired connections, making it difficult to troubleshoot and maintain the system

Modular connectors are designed specifically to address these challenges. The first generation of 7/8” modular connectors were the first quick-disconnection solution for power distribution and large sensor/actuator applications; they have been superseded by modern M12 power connectors in the past decade, which reduce connector profiles by up to 50% and increase power delivery from 10A to 16A, to provide an ideal balance of size, performance and ease of handling.

The widespread adoption of these connectors has significantly changed engineers’ approach to designing modern electronic hardware setups; although hardwired systems are still used in some areas of factory automation, modular connectors are now the go-to option for any application that requires versatility and flexibility at the installation, testing and maintenance stages.

What are the advantages of modular connectors?

Choosing modular connectors for a system design will deliver significant practical benefits in terms of performance and cost-effectiveness.

Plug-and-play installation

Modular M12 connectors can be disconnected and reconnected as easily as inserting or removing a plug. This allows systems to be set up or dismantled quickly, without requiring support from a specialist electrician.

Easier and quicker maintenance

Modular connectivity makes it quick and easy to repair a system or replace a component. Broken cables can be quickly swapped out and reconnected to a field-attachable connector, while non-functioning motors can be unplugged, replaced and reconnected without needing to rewire and dismantle the entire system, as is the case with a hardwired setup.

Standardised component design

Modern M12 power connectors are designed according to a standardised industry-wide template to comply with IEC International Standards. This eliminates the risk of products purchased from different manufacturer brands being mutually incompatible, and allows engineers to shop around much more easily.

Clear and communicative visual design

M12 connectors incorporate easily distinguishable coding styles (S-coded, K-coded, T-coded, L-coded, etc.) and visual language to make them easily identifiable. This helps to reduce the risk of accidental mismatching or miswiring of components, thereby saving time and preventing potential maintenance issues.

Increased design flexibility

With modular connectors, design engineers are able to create and assemble different components and sections of a system across a variety of sites, before plugging everything together when each section is complete. This method greatly simplifies the coordination of technology design projects, by avoiding the need for engineers to “layer” their work in one small area simultaneously, as is the case with hardwired systems.

In these ways, modular connectors continue to deliver significant and meaningful advantages in industrial applications across a wide range of sectors. By investing in the latest modular connectivity solutions, design engineers can keep their systems up to date, with incremental upgrades made possible by the connectors’ plug-and-play functionality and standardised component design. In doing so, they can ensure that their electronic setups are tailored around the needs of the business and its applications, rather than any limitations of the hardware.

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