An electrical connector is an electromechanical device used to join electrical conductors and create an electrical circuit. Most electrical connectors have a gender – i.e. the male component, called a plug, connects to the female component, or socket. The connection may be removable (as for portable equipment), require a tool for assembly and removal, or serve as a permanent electrical joint between two points. An adapter can be used to join dissimilar connectors.
Thousands of configurations of connectors are manufactured for power, data, and audiovisual applications. Electrical connectors can be divided into four basic categories, differentiated by their function:
- inline or cable connectors permanently attached to a cable, so it can be plugged into another terminal (either a stationary instrument or another cable)
- Chassis or panel connectors permanently attached to a piece of equipment so users can connect a cable to a stationary device
- PCB mount connectors soldered to a printed circuit board, providing a point for cable or wire attachment.:56 (e.g. pin headers, screw terminals, board-to-board connectors)
- Splice or butt connectors (primarily insulation displacement connectors) that permanently join two lengths of wire or cable
In addition to the classes mentioned above, connectors are characterised by their pinout, method of connection, materials, size, contact resistance, insulation, mechanical durability, ingress protection, lifetime (number of cycles), and ease of use.
It is usually desirable for a connector to be easy to identify visually, rapid to assemble, inexpensive, and require only simple tooling. In some cases an equipment manufacturer might choose a connector specifically because it is not compatible with those from other sources, allowing control of what may be connected. No single connector has all the ideal properties for every application; the proliferation of types is a result of the diverse yet specific requirements of manufacturers.:6
Electrical connectors essentially consist of two classes of materials: conductors and insulators. Properties important to conductor materials are conductivity, mechanical strength, formability, and resilience. Insulators must have a high electrical resistance, withstand high temperatures, and be easy to manufacture for a precise fit.
Electrodes in connectors are usually made of copper alloys, due to their good conductivity and malleability.:15 Alternatives include brass, phosphor bronze, and beryllium copper. The base electrode metal is often coated with another inert metal such as gold, nickel, or tin. This increases the electrical conductivity and durability. For example, copper alloys have favorable mechanical properties for electrodes, but are hard to solder and prone to corrosion. Thus, copper pins are usually coated with gold to alleviate these pitfalls, especially for analog signals and high reliability applications.
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Connectors are purely passive components – that is, they do not enhance the function of a circuit – so connectors should affect the function of a circuit as little as possible. Insecure mounting of connectors (primarily chassis-mounted) can contribute significantly to the risk of failure, especially when subjected to extreme shock or vibration. Other causes of failure are connectors inadequately rated for the applied current and voltage, connectors with inadequate ingress protection, and threaded backshells that are worn or damaged.
High temperatures can also cause failure in connectors, resulting in an “avalanche” of failures – ambient temperature increases, leading to a decrease in insulation resistance and increase in conductor resistance; this increase generates more heat, and the cycle repeats.
Fretting (so-called dynamic corrosion) is a common failure mode in electrical connectors that have not been specifically designed to prevent it, especially in those that are frequently mated and de-mated. Surface corrosion is a risk for many metal parts in connectors, and can cause contacts to form a thin surface layer that increases resistance, thus contributing to heat buildup and intermittent connections. However, remating or reseating a connector can alleviate the issue of surface corrosion, since each cycle scrapes a microscopic layer off the surface of the contact(s), exposing a fresh, unoxidised surface.
Many connectors used for industrial and high-reliability applications are circular in cross section, with a cylindrical housing and circular contact interface geometries. This is in contrast to the rectangular design of some connectors, e.g. USB or blade connectors. They are commonly used for easier engagement and disengagement, tight environmental sealing, and rugged mechanical performance. They are widely used in military, aerospace, industrial machinery, and rail, where MIL-DTL-5015 and MIL-DTL-38999 are commonly specified. Fields such as sound engineering and radio communication also use circular connectors, such as XLR and BNC. AC power plugs are also commonly circular, for example, Schuko plugs and IEC 60309.
The M12 connector, specified in IEC 61076-2-101, is a circular electrical plug/receptacle pair with 12mm OD mating threads, used in NMEA 2000, DeviceNet, IO-Link, some kinds of Industrial Ethernet, etc.
A disadvantage of the circular design is its inefficient use of panel space when used in arrays, when compared to rectangular connectors.
Circular connectors commonly use backshells, which provide physical and electromagnetic protection, whilst sometimes also providing a method for locking the connector into a receptacle. In some cases, this backshell provides a hermetic seal, or some degree of ingress protection, through the use of grommets, O-rings, or potting.
Hybrid connectors allow the intermixing of many connector types, usually by way of a housing with inserts. These housings may also allow intermixing of electrical and non-electrical interfaces, examples of the latter being pneumatic line connectors, and optical fiber connectors. Because hybrid connectors are modular in nature, they tend to simplify assembly, repair, and future modifications. They also allow the creation of composite cable assemblies that can reduce equipment installation time by reducing the number of individual cable and connector assemblies.
Some connectors are designed such that certain pins make contact before others when inserted, and break first on disconnection. This is often used in power connectors to protect equipment, e.g. connecting safety ground first. It is also employed for digital signals, as a method to sequence connections properly in hot swapping.
Many connectors are keyed with some mechanical component (sometimes called a keyway), which prevents mating in an incorrect orientation. This can be used to prevent mechanical damage to connectors, from being jammed in at the wrong angle or into the wrong connector, or to prevent incompatible or dangerous electrical connections, such as plugging an audio cable into a power outlet. Keying also prevents otherwise symmetrical connectors from being connected in the wrong orientation or polarity. Keying is particularly important for situations where there are many similar connectors, such as in signal electronics.:26 For instance, XLR connectors have a notch to ensure proper orientation, while Mini-DIN plugs have a plastic projection that fits into a corresponding hole in the socket (they also have a notched metal skirt to provide secondary keying).
Some connector housings are designed with locking mechanisms to prevent inadvertent disconnection or poor environmental sealing. Locking mechanism designs include locking levers of various sorts, screw locking, push-pull connector, and toggle or bayonet systems. Depending on application requirements, housings with locking mechanisms may be tested under various environmental simulations that include physical shock and vibration, water spray, dust, etc. to ensure the integrity of the electrical connection and housing seals.
Backshells are a common accessory for industrial and high-reliability connectors, especially circular connectors. Backshells typically protect the connector and/or cable from environmental or mechanical stress, or shield it from electromagnetic interference. Many types of backshells are available for different purposes, including various sizes, shapes, materials, and levels of protection. Backshells usually lock onto the cable with a clamp or moulded boot, and may be threaded for attachment to a mating receptacle. Backshells for military and aerospace use are regulated by SAE AS85049.
To deliver ensured signal stability in extreme environments, traditional pin and socket design may become inadequate. Hyperboloid contacts are designed to withstand more extreme physical demands, such as vibration and shock. They also require around 40% less insertion force – as low as 0.3 newtons (1 ozf) per contact, – which extends the lifespan, and in some cases offers an alternative to zero insertion force connectors.
In a connector with hyperboloid contacts, each female contact has several equally spaced longitudinal wires twisted into a hyperbolic shape. These wires are highly resilient to strain, but still somewhat elastic, hence they essentially function as linear springs. As the male pin is inserted, axial wires in the socket half are deflected, wrapping themselves around the pin to provide a number of contact points. The internal wires that form the hyperboloid structure are usually anchored at each end by bending the tip into a groove or notch in the housing.
Whilst hyperboloid contacts may be the only option to make a reliable connection in some circumstances, they have the disadvantage of taking up greater volume in a connector, which can cause problems for high-density connectors. They are also significantly more expensive than traditional pin and socket contacts, which has limited their uptake since their invention in the 1920s by Wilhelm Harold Frederick. In the 1950s, Francois Bonhomme popularised hyperboloid contacts with his “Hypertac” connector, which was later acquired by Smiths Group. During the following decades, the connectors steadily gained popularity, and are still used for medical, industrial, military, aerospace, and rail applications (particularly trains in Europe).
Pogo pin or spring loaded connectors are commonly used in consumer and industrial products, where mechanical resilience and ease of use are priorities. The connector consists of a barrel, a spring, and a plunger. They are used for safety in applications such as the MagSafe connector, and can be less damaging than traditional pin and socket design, leading to their use in in-circuit testing.
Crown spring connectors
Crown spring connectors are commonly used for higher current flows and industrial applications. They have a high number of contact points, which provides a more electrically reliable connection than traditional pin and socket connectors.
Methods of connection
Whilst technically inaccurate, electrical connectors can be viewed as a type of adapter to convert between two connection methods, which are permanently connected at one end and (usually) detachable at the other end.:40 By definition, each end of this “adapter” has a different connection method – e.g. the solder tabs on a male phone connector, and the male phone connector itself. In this example, the solder tabs connected to the cable represent the permanent connection, whilst the male connector portion interfaces with a female socket forming a detachable connection.
There are many ways of applying a connector to a cable or device. Some of these methods can be accomplished without specialized tools. Other methods, while requiring a special tool, can assemble connectors much faster and more reliably, and make repairs easier.
Plug and socket connectors
Plug and socket connectors are usually made up of a male plug (typically pin contacts) and a female socket (typically receptacle contacts). Often, but not always, sockets are permanently fixed to a device as in a chassis connector, and plugs are attached to a cable.
Plugs generally have one or more pins or prongs that are inserted into openings in the mating socket. The connection between the mating metal parts must be sufficiently tight to make a good electrical connection and complete the circuit. An alternative type of plug and socket connection uses hyperboloid contacts, which makes a more reliable electrical connection. When working with multi-pin connectors, it is helpful to have a pinout diagram to identify the wire or circuit node connected to each pin.
Some connector styles may combine pin and socket connection types in a single unit, referred to as a hermaphroditic connector.:56 These connectors includes mating with both male and female aspects, involving complementary paired identical parts each containing both protrusions and indentations. These mating surfaces are mounted into identical fittings that freely mate with any other, without regard for gender (provided that the size and type match).
Sometimes both ends of a cable are terminated with the same gender of connector, as in many Ethernet patch cables. In other applications the two ends are terminated differently, either with male and female of the same connector (as in an extension cord), or with incompatible connectors, which is sometimes called an adapter cable.
Jacks and plugs
A jack is a connector that installs on the surface of a bulkhead or enclosure, and mates with its reciprocal, the plug. According to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, the stationary (more fixed) connector of a pair is classified as a jack (denoted J), usually attached to a piece of equipment as in a chassis-mount or panel-mount connector. The movable (less fixed) connector is classified as a plug (denoted P), designed to attach to a wire, cable or removable electrical assembly. This convention is currently defined in ASME Y14.44-2008, which supersedes IEEE 200-1975, which in turn derives from the long-withdrawn MIL-STD-16 (from the 1950s), highlighting the heritage of this connector naming convention. IEEE 315-1975 works alongside ASME Y14.44-2008 to define jacks and plugs.
The term jack occurs in several related terms:
- The registered jack or modular jack in RJ11, RJ45 and other similar connectors used for telecommunication and computer networking
- The telephone jack of manual telephone switchboards, which is the socket fitting the original 1⁄4 inch (6.35 mm) telephone plug
- The 1⁄4 inch (6.35 mm) phone jack common to many electronic applications in various configurations, sometimes referred to as a headphone jack
- The RCA jack, also known as a phono jack, common to consumer audiovisual electronics
- The EIAJ jack for consumer appliances requiring a power supply of less than 18.0 volts
Crimped connectors are a type of solderless connection, using mechanical friction and uniform deformation to secure a connector to a pre-stripped wire (usually stranded). Crimping is used in splice connectors, crimped multipin plugs and sockets, and crimped coaxial connectors. Crimping usually requires a specialised crimping tool, but the connectors are quick and easy to install and are a common alternative to solder connections or insulation displacement connectors. Effective crimp connections deform the metal of the connector past its yield point so that the compressed wire causes tension in the surrounding connector, and these forces counter each other to create a high degree of static friction. Due to the elastic element in crimped connections, they are highly resistant to vibration and thermal shock.
Crimped contacts are permanent (i.e. the connectors and wire ends cannot be reused).
- Front release contacts are released from the front (contact side) of the connector, and removed from the rear. The removal tool engages with the front portion of the contact and pushes it through to the back of the connector.
- Rear release contacts are released and removed from the rear (wire side) of the connector. The removal tool releases the contacts from the rear and pulls the contact out of the retainer.
Many plug and socket connectors are attached to a wire or cable by soldering conductors to electrodes on the back of the connector. Soldered joints in connectors are robust and reliable if executed correctly, but are usually slower to make than crimped connections. When wires are to be soldered to the back of a connector, a backshell is often used to protect the connection and add strain relief. Metal solder buckets or solder cups are provided, which consist of a cylindrical cavity that an installer fills with solder before inserting the wire.
When creating soldered connections, it is possible to melt the dielectric between pins or wires. This can cause problems because the thermal conductivity of metals causes heat to quickly distribute through the cable and connector, and when this heat melts plastic dielectric, it can cause short circuits or “flared” (conical) insulation. Solder joints are also more prone to mechanical failure than crimped joints when subjected to vibration and compression.
Since stripping insulation from wires is time-consuming, many connectors intended for rapid assembly use insulation-displacement connectors which cut the insulation as the wire is inserted. These generally take the form of a fork-shaped opening in the terminal, into which the insulated wire is pressed, which cut through the insulation to contact the conductor. To make these connections reliably on a production line, special tools accurately control the forces applied during assembly. On small scales, these tools tend to cost more than tools for crimped connections.
Insulation displacement connectors are usually used with small conductors for signal purposes and at low voltage. Power conductors carrying more than a few amperes are more reliably terminated with other means, though “hot tap” press-on connectors find some use in automotive applications for additions to existing wiring.
A common example is the multi-conductor flat ribbon cable used in computer disk drives; to terminate each of the many (approximately 40) wires individually would be slow and error-prone, but an insulation displacement connector can terminate all the wires in a single action. Another very common use is so-called punch-down blocks used for terminating unshielded twisted pair wiring.
Binding posts are a single-wire connection method, where stripped wire is screwed or clamped to a metal electrode. Such connectors are frequently used in electronic test equipment and audio. Many binding posts also accept a banana plug.
Screw connections are frequently used for semi-permanent wiring and connections inside devices, due to their simple but reliable construction. The basic principle of all screw terminals involves the tip of a bolt clamping onto a stripped conductor. They can be used to join multiple conductors, to connect wires to a printed circuit board, or to terminate a cable into a plug or socket.:50 The clamping screw may act in the longitudinal axis (parallel to the wire) or the transverse axis (perpendicular to the wire), or both. Some disadvantages are that connecting wires is more difficult than simply plugging in a cable, and screw terminals are generally not very well protected from contact with persons or foreign conducting materials.
Terminal blocks (also called terminal boards or strips) provide a convenient means of connecting individual electrical wires without a splice or physically joining the ends. Since terminal blocks are readily available for a wide range of wire sizes and terminal quantity, they are one of the most flexible types of electrical connector available. One type of terminal block accepts wires that are prepared only by stripping a short length of insulation from the end. Another type, often called barrier strips, accepts wires that have ring or spade terminal lugs crimped onto the wires.
Printed circuit board (PCB) mounted screw terminals let individual wires connect to a PCB through leads soldered to the board.
Ring and spade connectors
The connectors in the top row of the image are known as ring terminals and spade terminals (sometimes called fork or split ring terminals). Electrical contact is made by the flat surface of the ring or spade, while mechanically they are attached by passing a screw or bolt through them. The spade terminal form factor facilitates connections since the screw or bolt can be left partially screwed in as the spade terminal is removed or attached. Their sizes can be determined by the gauge of the conducting wire, and the interior and exterior diameters.
A blade connector is a type of single wire, plug-and-socket connection using a flat conductive blade that is inserted into a receptacle. Wires may be attached to male or female blade connectors by either crimping or soldering. Insulated and uninsulated varieties are available. In some cases the blade is an integral manufactured part of a component (such as a switch or a speaker unit), and the reciprocal connector is pushed onto the device’s connector.
Common types of blade connectors are the Faston connectors and Lucar connectors. While Faston is a trademark of TE Connectivity (formerly Tyco Electronics), it has come into common usage. Faston connectors come in male and female types. They have been commonly used since the 1970s.
Other connection methods
- Crocodile (alligator) clips – conductive clamps used for temporary connections, e.g. jumper cables
- Board to board connectors – e.g. card-edge connectors or FPGA mezzanine connectors
- Twist-on wire connectors (e.g. wire nuts) – used in low-voltage power circuits for wires up to about 10 AWG
- Wire wrapping – used in older circuit boards
- AC power plugs and sockets
- Audio and video connector
- Banana connector
- Battery holder
- Battery terminals
- Coaxial power connector
- Computer port (hardware)
- Crocodile clip
- DC connector
- DIN connector
- Dock connector
- D-sub connectors
- Edge connector
- JST connector
- Mini-DIN connector
- Optical fiber connector
- Phone connector (audio)
- Pin header
- RCA connector
- RJ-XX connector