Mike O’Connor, Red Lion Controls,
Director Hardware Engineering, Automation Team
When designing electronics for harsh environments, the top considerations are
temperature, electromagnetic interference (EMI),
electrical abnormalities, and mechanical strength.
Temperature in harsh applications can vary greatly from what
average electronics will ever see. For example, an electronic control
system on an oil rig or gas pipeline could be located in sweltering
deserts or sub-zero temperatures, unlike consumer electronics
that are designed for milder environments. Therefore, industrial
electronics need to use components rated to broader temperature
extremes, such as -40 C to +85 C. Additionally, designs must
employ methods to eliminate excess heat through conduction (heat
sinks), convection (air flow) or radiation (heat fins).
The second element to address is protection from EMI, which is
emitted from power switching circuits, wireless devices, sun flares,
thunderstorms, and more. EMI can be conducted through physical
means or radiated through air. The EMI in industrial environments
is typically much worse than in-home or commercial areas, as
consumer electronics must meet different standards and therefore
generate less noise. Also, industrial applications tend to utilize more
electrical devices with higher voltages and currents. Designers must
therefore employ shielding, filters, special layout techniques, bypass
capacitors, and other methods of protecting against EMI.
The third consideration for electronics in harsh conditions
is protection against electrical abnormalities like power surges,
brownouts, fast transients, and electrostatic discharge. These can
enter through any connections on the electrical device, including
the ground. The use of fuses, surge suppressors, and chokes are the
typical solution of choice for this protection. Finally, the electronics
must physically hold up to the harsh environment, which can mean
using a metal case instead of plastic, corrosion protection such as
conformal coating, water-tight seals, or even shock absorbers. Given
the variety of challenges present in harsh environments, it’s vital
that designers consider all the elements involved, and design to
mitigate the threats each pose.
Scott Flower, Product Strategy Manager and
designer of the Gecko 1.25mm interconnection
system, Harwin Inc.
Shock, vibration, and temperature fluctuation are the three biggest killers of electronic
systems. Harsh environments often encompass all
those conditions. Consider, for example, a satellite. On launch,
the onboard systems will experience intense shock and severe
vibration. When deployed in space, the satellite may alternately
be extremely cold, for example when shielded from the sun by
the moon, or very hot when directly exposed to the sun’s
Similarly, defense systems also provide challenging shock,
vibration, and temperature conditions, but even automotive
applications must be able to survive a sub-zero winter and
elevated under-the-hood temperatures, as well as continuous
vibration. Motor sport is more regulated, but vibrations are more
severe as cars are pushed to the absolute limit of performance,
and robotics are often used where conditions are hazardous to
human life, so it must be prepared for all events.
Such conditions are challenging for any electronic
component but for the interconnection, the issue is even more
difficult since the connector often forms not only an electrical
but also a physical connection. Simply put, a connector designed
for a consumer application is very unlikely to be fit for purpose
of even an industrial environment such as an Industry 4.0
Smart Factory installation, let alone a defense, aerospace, or
There are two key issues: robustness and continuity of
signal. It is relatively easy to determine whether a connector
is physically robust enough to withstand harsh environment
deployment. The ability of a connector to maintain continuity
of signal under shock, vibration, and temperature extremes
depends primarily on the contact design. There are many
different types of contact, such as check shock, vibration,
and temperature performance. Remember, harsh operating
conditions often mean you don’t get a second chance.
© 2017 Universe Kogaku (America) Inc.
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Q: What are the most critical considerations when designing electronics for use in harsh environments?