Modern electronic devices are getting smaller with every new generation, and as a result, they are becoming more portable. At the same time, the performance of these devices is growing as the demands of consumers become greater. We expect to be able to connect to the internet wherever we go, and so we carry our cell phones, smartwatches and portable devices everywhere.
Equipment manufacturers are keen to tell us that our new device will work in harsh conditions, but what does that really mean? We hear the phrases “harsh conditions” and “severe environment” a lot in the electronics industry. It seems everyone wants to talk about IP ratings and operating temperatures.
These phrases suggest a number of images. When we think of a severe environment, we think of oil drilling platforms in the arctic, huge earth-moving equipment in the desert, or coast guard ships in huge seas. However, harsh conditions can exist in some pretty surprising places.
Defining the environment
Before we continue, however, we must be clear on one thing. For all our discussions about the environment, it is not the environment that damages sensitive equipment. An environment, whether harsh or benign, is simply the sum of the conditions that are found within it. The conditions may be pleasant, or they may be dangerous, but the important fact to remember is that it is these conditions that have the capacity to make an environment severe.
An engineer who is creating a new product must be certain about what conditions the product will have to resist and, when it comes to protecting sensitive equipment, there are some things that are encountered time and again.
Water, water everywhere…
Water has the power to dissolve, to corrode, and to conduct. It can damage metal components, it can affect plastics and other non-metallic parts, and it can create short circuits. In an electronics application, none of these are particularly desirable, and so designers go to great lengths to ensure that their devices are protected from water. Manufacturers can use IP or NEMA ratings as a convenient way of telling customers the level of protection that their equipment can deliver.
For all its power to cause damage, water is just one example of a contaminant that can create havoc within electronic devices. In fact, other contaminants have the capacity to cause even greater harm. From harsh cleaning chemicals to acidic solutions used in manufacturing, electronics devices need to be protected from more than just water.
Take the heat
And just when you thought it was safe to take your waterproof electronics out onto the factory floor, the issues caused by extremes of temperature need to be considered. Quite aside from the fact that electronic circuits do not perform well in particularly low or high temperatures, these extremes have the power to cause huge damage to components. When combined with other contaminants, the problems are magnified. Water itself is a perfect example – water expands when it freezes, and steam is very good at finding its way into places it shouldn’t be.
It is also important to remember that shock and vibration can be just as damaging as high temperatures or aggressive chemicals. High-frequency vibration or hard impacts are part of so many manufacturing processes that we must consider their effects on electronic devices.
Having gained an understanding of the conditions that might cause harm to electronics devices, it is vitally important to determine whether your application contains them, and this is where the real fun begins. Even the most unassuming environment might contain within it the conditions to damage components.
How harsh is your environment?
The factory floor is a place of vibration, noise and chemicals. Even the cleanest of manufacturing facilities – those associated with food preparation, for example – are filled with hazards and pitfalls. Machines need to be cleaned, and while water is relatively benign, high-pressure water has the potential to cause some real damage.
More unusual might be a hospital operating theatre. It may lay claim to being one of the cleanest environments anywhere, but that comes at the price of some fairly aggressive conditions. The use of cleaning chemicals, steam sterilisation and ultrasonic equipment all have the potential to render electronic equipment useless if not handled correctly.
Possibly the most surprising example of extreme conditions can be found within the home. When you consider what goes on in the average family kitchen, it is easy to understand how demanding this environment is. From acids and abrasive cleaning chemicals to extreme temperature cycling, high-temperature water and steam, the family kitchen is an environment that could quickly destroy sensitive electronics. And yet we happily install televisions, smart speakers and wireless devices, confident in the expectation that they will work without interruption.
It is therefore of vital importance that the designer recognises the hazards that will be presented to the device once in use, because harsh environments are all around us, even where we least suspect them. Choosing the right component can make the difference between the next big thing and the next thing on the scrapheap.
The importance of testing
Samtec is committed to providing the highest performance products for demanding applications. The Severe Environment Testing (SET) program is a new initiative that seeks to test the performance of Samtec connectors beyond the demands of typical industrial applications. As shown by the Micro Rugged Interconnection System, an array of shock, vibration, durability, temperature and continuity tests will provide engineers with the peace of mind that, whatever their design requirements, Samtec products will deliver the reliability they need.