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Developing interconnect solutions for LED technology

With many national governments actively promoting the development and implementation of LED lighting, LED components and engines have become a major area of growth for the electronics industry with an expected market compound annual growth rate 20% over the next five years.


This growth is fueled by government-supported incentive programs encouraging the change from incandescent bulb technology to LED lamps. Additionally, technical improvements in lumens/W performance, brightness and warm and cool color ranges make more applications viable for LED solutions.

Finally, rising energy costs are driving interest in LEDs’ low-energy consumption, long life, and low maintenance requirements. LED technology is now suited for a growing number of applications – especially in the area of (smaller) signs and displays.

Rock band U2’s latest world tour has a 360° shape LED screen that can change shape in all
directions during the concert. FCI was asked to replace an expensive custom interconnect with
a more typical (and economical) pin-on-socket solution for the application.

Today there are application-specific interconnects for every LED level, including connecting LEDs to printed circuit boards to form a string and small, direct-board-attach solutions. But the connector design, as such, is fairly limited; $1 in development costs for the LED requires up to $8 in costs for its total design package, which is mainly for power management, color controls, software and ICs. The connector content is typically less than 4% or $0.32, so while there are dedicated connector solutions created specifically for LED applications, many LED fixture designers tend to use more standard, off-the-shelf solutions or slightly modified ones.
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Using standard connectors rather than those created or customized specifically for LED applications follows a general trend in the connector industry. For example, when creating an LED wall where LED modules are being used on a variety of structures so that designers can create any shape or design they want, an LED-specific connector could be costly and not allow for flexibility.

Barco, a Belgium-based global developer LED technology, has built the world’s first transformable LED screen for the rock band U2’s latest world tour. With its 360° shape, the LED screen surrounds the band while performing and can change shape in all directions during the concert. FCI was asked to replace an expensive custom interconnect with a more typical (and economical) pin-on-socket solution for the application.

The engineering team selected FCI’s Minitek connector because the standard product line would fit this demanding application in terms of size, flexibility and outdoor environment requirements. By using the Minitek connector, a very substantial cost reduction was achieved without sacrificing performance or LED package density.

The engineering team selected FCI’s Minitek connector (above) because the standard product line would fit this demanding application in terms of size, flexibility and outdoor environment requirements. By using the Minitek connector, a very substantial cost reduction was achieved without sacrificing performance or LED package density.

Opportunities for connector suppliers in the LED market are also available at the application/infrastructure level, not just at the package level. For example, power consumption facilitation and optimization requires more advanced power controllers which means more electronics and therefore, more connectors. Or when several LEDs are used together in a single application, LED controllers or switching regulators are required. All of these LED-related applications can benefit from standard interconnects like pin-on-socket solutions, D-sub, USB, FFC/ FPC, and smaller-pitch mezzanine applications.

With rapid advancements in power reduction, and minimizing and controlling LED heat, it is expected that future applications will use less-expensive, rigid aluminum-backed printed circuit boards for proper heat dissipation and move towards more cost-effective flexible circuits. This is also being driven by signal and display applications, where most of the future LED growth is expected.

For connector suppliers, this may mean LED customers will be moving away from pin-on-socket interconnect solutions towards more flexible solutions such as FFC-FPC connectors or small-pitch board-to-board connectors similar to what we see in many consumer applications; similar, but there is still one big difference: with the typical long lifetime of LEDs, lighting and fixture designers will be looking for proven interconnect solutions which last in more demanding environments.

Long-life and higher-end applications require robust connectors, not the typical consumer-oriented interconnects which are designed for products such as cell phones that are replaced every year or two. For connector manufacturers, this will drive the next wave of connector development in which standard, proven connectors are made more durable to ensure longer lifetimes and maintained levels of performance.

Gijs Werner is Global Market Manager at FCI.
www.fciconnect.com