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During my visit to DesignCon, I stopped in to chat with Woody Maynard of Neoconix, a San Jose company making unique custom connectors. In this interview, Woody explains the technology, how they work with their customers, and where he sees the market headed.
Nolan Johnson: Tell me about Neoconix and your role there.
Woody Maynard: Neoconix makes custom connectors. We have a technology that’s very unique and that provides a lot of capabilities that traditional connectors don’t have. We make our connectors much like you make a printed circuit board but with an added third dimension. So a lot of the flexibility that you have with PCBs to customize things, we can do that with our connectors, and without the heavy tooling and investment that people often have with traditional connectors. Almost everything we do is custom. We go into a lot of space-constrained applications. We also do a lot of high-speed applications because of some of the capabilities that our products have.
My role is in marketing, but mostly on the technical side and with product development. I primarily work with customers designing new products, trying to leverage the technology the best that we can to fit the needs that they have. A lot of the projects I work on tend to be high-speed applications going into places like data centers, high performance computing, etc.
Johnson: Normally when somebody says connectors, I think cables, but what I saw on your table looked a whole lot more like interposer-type technology.
Maynard: Our products fit within the interposer category, but our products are essentially Z-axis compression connectors. We have a lot of different technologies now to accomplish that. We can connect two boards together, or a device, such as an ASIC or a microprocessor, to a board. We also do flex circuit to board connections. We have a sister company that makes flex circuits, so we can do turnkey solutions that’ll have a flex circuit and a connector integrated together, which simplifies implementation for the customers as well.
Johnson: There are a lot of challenges right now in Z-axis connectors. Dimensions are moving ever smaller. We’re hearing a lot of commentary about how ball grid arrays are starting to get to a point where you’re not going to be able to put them directly on a printed circuit board anymore and all sorts of challenges in that regard. It sounds like you’re right in the middle of that space.
Maynard: Soldering down ultra-high density BGA packages absolutely presents challenges in assembly, yield, and rework, which is why we are working with industry leading OEMs on z-axis compression connector alternatives that eliminate solder. One of our newest technologies goes down to 0.4 millimeter pitch, so very high density. Traditionally, sockets have been one millimeter pitch, maybe slightly lower than that, getting down to 0.8, but we’re making some significant strides getting down to 0.4 millimeter pitch, which is something that people are seeking for co-packaging and other applications where you really need very high density to get a lot of signals out in a very small space.
Johnson: From an EMS provider’s point of view, those are particularly challenging dimensions. How do you work with the assembly houses to get their capabilities in line with the challenge?
Maynard: There are a lot of challenges, specifically when you get into those fine pitches. As the pitch gets smaller, the landing pad that the contact tip has to connect to is also getting much smaller. You must be very precise with your alignment. We often have to work with the mechanical engineering teams of the customer, because it’s not just what the capabilities of our connector are, but how does everything come together at the system level? We’re integrating into their system. There are components on their side that’ll factor into the tolerance analysis, and there’s also some on our side. We have to collaborate with the customers to go through those analyses.
Johnson: I would assume that, when you’re talking about this sort of pitch, you’re also tending talk about high speed and signal integrity.
Maynard: That’s correct, and one of the big advantages of our technology is we can make these things extremely thin, even as thin as a business card. And when you have such a small, thin connection, the signal path is so short that your signal integrity can be very, very good. That’s one of the big advantages that we can bring to the table. Another interesting thing about our technology with its customizability and using photolithography and etch is we can do some subtle adjustments to the design to tune the impedance or tune the signal integrity without doing physical form factor changes. So, if we need to be at 85 ohms for one application and another one needs 95 ohms, we can do tweaks to the design itself. The overall footprint of the products could be identical, but we can have two different offerings for those two different applications.
Johnson: In the overall design and manufacturing chain, where is it that your part gets specified so that you can start integrating into the project?
Maynard: When we work with customers on their programs, typically we work with system engineers at some level and get some constraints around what they need and what space they have available. What kind of technical requirements do they have in terms of signal speeds and power? Then we work on proposals, which we can iterate with a customer. We come up with a proposal, get feedback, and we’ll work with the customer to fine-tune it to make sure that it’s the most efficient it can be for that application. Our manufacturing process is pretty straightforward and somewhat agnostic to the specific details of each custom design. We can turn around custom parts pretty quickly, in a matter of a few weeks in some cases. We can do that even quicker on an expedited basis when we need to.
Johnson: If your connectors are going into an EMS house, for example, that’s never worked with you before, is there much of a ramp-up or training or anything like that that’s involved since you’re dealing with some very tight tolerances?
Maynard: Neoconix fully understands that design is only the beginning of a project. We do like to work with the EMS companies on initial prototype and production bring-ups, to understand and assist with any assembly and test challenges. We often provide assembly tools or tool design recommendations to provide the most efficient and reliable installation.
Johnson: Is this normally a face-to-face, on-site interaction?
Maynard: It is when we can. It’s been a little more challenging with COVID obviously nowadays. We have created some videos and we’ll offer that if we can’t do the in-person training. We also do Zoom calls and things like that where we can describe what we’re doing. We will also, in some cases, create application guides to guide the customers with assembly instructions, handling guidelines, etc.
Johnson: Looking forward a year or two, where do you see this technology?
Maynard: Right now, a lot of our development effort is going into working with higher densities and higher speeds. There are transitions from PCIe Gen4 to Gen5 and Gen6, and on the data center side, transitioning to 112G and 224G for Ethernet switches. Neoconix continues to put resources into making sure we can support those higher speeds as they emerge.
We have a lot of business in the mobile computing segment, like laptop computers and peripherals. Another big part of our business is in the high-speed arena with data centers and artificial intelligence and those kinds of applications. But in both cases, people are trying to push higher densities and higher speeds, so that’s a common theme across markets.
Another major effort is dealing with the increased power demands. We’re working on some innovative ways to substantially improve power delivery and heat dissipation with our connectors.
These are some big challenges for the connector industry, so we’re trying to do the best we can to meet those customer needs and do it as quickly as possible.
Johnson: Woody, thank you for your time. I appreciate it.
Maynard: No problem.