Technology Black Swans

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Is it the end for the Green Board?

Phil Gilchrist, TE Connectivity (TE) VP and CTO, discusses technology "black swans," the unexpected technology developments that change what’s possible in the world.

What happens in Glasgow...

What makes this a wonderful world is the unpredictability of the way things evolve. I was reminded of this a couple of months ago when I discovered that Glasgow (Scotland) was now in the business of building small satellites. When I read this, I recalled growing up in the East End of Glasgow in the 1970s. The city, for all its rich civic history of trade and invention, was in a rough spot. Where I grew up, there were vast abandoned red brick buildings open to the elements, with huge cranes and rusted private railway spurs reflecting an expression of the city’s past. It was a kind of industrial Pompeii. There used to be some 50+ ship yards along Glasgow’s River Clyde; famous ships such as the Lusitania and Queen Elizabeth (1 and 2) were built there. In the 1970s, there were only three or four yards left, maintained mostly to serve the Royal Navy and the drilling industry. It was as if the Industrial Revolution just stopped and everyone got off. It just wasn’t a happy time.

...can be reinvented

Clyde Space (clyde-space.com), now makes satellites for $50,000 a pop and you can buy them online. If you don’t find that a jarring and cheery thought all at the same time, you aren’t thinking hard enough. You don’t have to be a 1970s Glaswegian to appreciate the twin reaffirming messages of reinvention and imagination.

COOL

Offer greater thermal efficiency than PCBs

HARDY

Maintain signal performance in harsh (high heat) environments

EASY

Can be simply unplugged and replaced

Black Swans

Technology Reimagined

Technology black swans – unexpected technology developments that change what’s possible in the world – dominate. They’ve enabled Glasgow’s entry into the space race. The transistor and the Internet are obvious black swans, but there are others that receive less press: new materials and chemicals, cheap wireless communications, software that simulates complex products long before a single nut or bolt has bought and assembled. 3D printing has given everyone the opportunity to own a mechanical prototyping lab on their desk for only $100s. Very cheap GPS chips allow anyone to locate almost anything, if they wish.

Death to the PCB?

Rise of Power and Data Cable-Based Architecture

Consider, if you will, another possible technology black swan: the rise of power and data cabled-based architectures that will kill the printed circuit board (PCB) as a thing of value or utility. PCBs provide mechanical support and electrically connect nearly every electronic product you can think of. Conductive traces weave through the typically green material connecting soldered-down components. The drawbacks are that PCBs constrain designs (they’re flat, stiff boards after all), can be hard to work with, hard to repair, expensive to make, and they lose signal strength over distance fairly quickly. Not much has changed with PCBs for many years; we all just assume they will always be there.

Cable-based architectures free the designer from building around a flat board in the middle of their product. The designer can just leave it out and avoid the listed issues. Power and data connectors can just be “plugged in” exactly where they need to be. Freed from the constraints of a flat PCB, maximum lengths between connectors can be at least four times longer in the passive cable case (i.e. non-powered copper or fiber cables) and up to kilometers for active cables, such as active optical cables. Where a PCB forces a co-planar architecture, a cabled architecture connects components in any direction. Physical structures can shrink or be dramatically rearranged. Architecture designers can really reinvent what we believe normal to be. Think about how this might impact electronics that are meant to be physically close to us 24 hours a day like smart textiles, other wearables, and portable devices.

Plug-n-Play

Lower Energy Use, Operating Costs, and Environmental Impact

In large pieces of electrical equipment, PCBs restrict cooling airflow significantly. Airflow hits a PCB wall and is bounced back. Thermal engineers are employed to design around these constraints. What if one just removed the wall? Cable architectures don’t have walls. Air and even water could move freely throughout the equipment with greater thermal efficiency, which translates into lower energy, lower operational costs and lower global environmental impact.

 

Cables are also usually hardier than PCBs, maintaining their signal performance in harsh environments having high heat where PCBs tend to warp. Cables are often easier to service and repair: when something goes wrong, you don’t have to rip out a board with soldered components, with its tangled web of delicate flexes. Think about the possibility of completely cabled architectures: all you’d have to do is unplug one component and replace it with another.

The great thing about technology black swans is that you usually don’t see them coming.
Phil Gilchrist,
Vice President and Chief Technology Officer

In Summary

Just when you think something is completely static and fixed, and nobody can imagine it being done any other way, black swans flip it all over and new strands of growth begin. The NASA industrial complex could never have imagined 20 years ago that they’d be competing for satellite business with a Glasgow start-up. Cabled architectures also have the power to change the design of every electrical product made. Just imagine what innovations it could lead to in any electronic design.