Plug and Play Portable Structures Designed for Rugged Environments

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Fiber Optics Connectors

The growing need for hybrid, portable electric power and communications cabling has led to the emergence of a new standard in advanced connection technology. It's now simple and economical to couple fiber optic networking with an integral power source for truly flexible wireless access.

One of the more perplexing dilemmas facing enterprises today is that they have to be lean and robust at the same time. Not only do business strategies have to be agile, but so do operations, including the buildings and infrastructures that support them.

Low-voltage electric power and voice/data communications are among the foremost of those infrastructure requirements. Virtually every industry has a need to expand or relocate power and multi-channel communications conduits--cabling--on an ever-changing, as-needed basis. This is just as true for the mining, manufacturing, and military industries as it is for oil platforms, broadcasting, and even retail businesses.

With such a diverse range of industries experiencing this re-location dynamic, a huge need has arisen for hybrid communications (fiber optic/loop current) and low-voltage cabling that incorporates rugged design as well as easy connection, abundant bandwidth, and the ability to pull power, as well as communications, over long distances with flexibility of access points. A good application example is the subterranean mine, where the need for power and communications (including wireless and VOIP) access points is constantly changing locations in a very harsh environment.

Until recently, the most popular solution for hybrid cables was CAT5 (Category 5 cable). Because of the copper twisted-pair wiring, applications using CAT5 (or 5e) were typically restricted to distances of 700-800 feet, and only 300 feet when used as a network backbone. Also, the copper in CAT5 cable is problematic in some applications because copper is subject to interference from magnetic forces created in the presence of high-voltage lines. Such interference can corrupt data and cause sporadic performance.

To avoid those shortcomings and take advantage of the bandwidth, distance, superb system latency, and cost benefits, R&D engineers began to look at fiber optics, which offered the choice of very high bandwidth (e.g., HDTV) and communication over miles.

Applied Optical Systems, Inc. (AOS) developed a long-distance hybrid system that carries both electrical and multi-channel fiber optics; it accommodates both LAN and wireless LAN platforms. Based in Plano, Texas, the company designs, develops, and manufactures a variety of fiber optic interconnect components, assemblies, and optical sub-systems for a wide scope of applications. The company's passive fiber-optic components, cabling, systems, and leading fiber optic technologies are delivered to the mobile and fixed, military, governmental, and industrial markets.

The F-LINKTM version of the AOS line includes a family of products equipped with up to 34 fiber optic channels and a fiber optic backshell, plus a complete line of connectors to provide the flexibility and cost-effectiveness that are required by many applications. The F-LinkTM concept is more revolution than evolution. While some product lines are an adaptation of earlier technologies, this one was developed from the ground up as today's hybrid solution.

For example, the plug and play connectors and terminals are designed for use in harsh and rugged environments. Whereas most opto-electrical systems have connections that withstand only 20-30 pounds of strain, this one has strain resistance of 250-400 pounds, depending on the quality of the fiber or composite cable. Therefore, it is ideal for applications where high winds or rough handling may occur.

Designed to accommodate different configurations, the F-Link™ inter-connect concept takes advantage of precision injection molding techniques, keeping cost low while maintaining the highest precision in geometric cavity pattern layout.

Enhancing portability and affordability

A successful example of this re-location challenge is the portable classroom, used to support the changing facility requirements of an increasing number of school districts. These portable buildings are often used as temporary housing to accommodate student population overflow or new classroom construction projects.

The Albuquerque Public School District, one of the largest in the United States, owns over 1,300 portable buildings. Each year, 150 or more of these buildings, mostly used as temporary classrooms, are relocated. Every time a portable building is moved, there are substantial recurring costs resulting from hiring a contractor to disconnect and re-connect the data communications lines that integrated the building with the school.

"It cost tens of thousands of dollars every time we had to cable a group of portables," says Doug Ahlgrim, RCDD/NTS of contractor Sound & Signal Systems, Inc., of New Mexico. "That was much too wasteful, so we developed a 'quick disconnect' plug and play design that would facilitate hooking up or unhooking a hybrid (fiber optic/electrical) plug and play design that would facilitate connecting or disconnecting all low-voltage systems."

Tony Perry, technology manager for the Albuquerque Public Schools, was also involved in this design and implementation.

To ensure lasting performance and durability, Ahlgrim's team had to deal with harsh environments, including New Mexico's seasonal temperature extremes, and rough treatment that the connections received. Also, vandalism to theprevious quick-disconnect that theschool district had been using was a re-occurring problem.

While looking for a supplier of plug and play opto-electrical technology, Ahlgrim's research led him to Applied Optical Systems, known for the design and manufacture of fiber optic inter-connects for harsh and rugged environments. Although Applied Optical's products include "tactical" fiber optic connectors that conform to U.S. military specifications, Ahlgrim was particularly interested in the "F-LinkTM" series that includes versions designed for hybrid applications. Those are able to support port counts from two to 34 channels across five families of product.

"AOS tailored their F-LinkTM platform to meet the Albuquerque Public School System in order to keep the cost down, while also providing a system that is robust and rugged enough for the environments we're putting it in," Ahlgrim says. Continuous vandalism of the previous 'quick-disconnect' product led the district to resolve the issue with the first installation of the F-Link™ inter-connect system.When used with Optical Cable Corporation (OCC) MX-Series Messenger Cable, the pull strength on the F-LinkTM fiber optical solution exceeds 250 pounds and functions well in an outdoor environment.

Upon approval from the school district, Sound & Signal Systems immediately replaced the previous broken connections with F-Link™ systems, on approximately 40 portable buildings. There has not been a single breakage problem since.

"Now we're talking about anywhere up to $2,000 per portable to get them connected on the network," Ahlgrim explains. "And every time they move, it costs less than $1,000 to go unplug and then re-plug."

Ahlgrim adds that once the plug and play system is installed, overall costs have been reduced from tens of thousands of dollars down to just hundreds of dollars per relocation.

"We now have about 400-to-500 F-LinkTM systems deployed within the district and it's growing every day," he says. "Though the district is not really seeing the huge savings yet, they'll start seeing it as they move from area to area and experience the savings based on the ease and simplicity of un-plug and re-plug, saving on labor, repair, and replacement costs. Plus connector inventory is greatly simplified, and maintenance personnel can be trained on a single, easy system. So, there are even greater savings ahead."

The performance and savings are promising enough that the Albuquerque Public School System is considering standardizing on the F-LinkTM connector.

In addition, the district has decided to use the same connector for the intercom, fire alarm, security, and phone systems throughout its school facilities.

For more information on Applied Optical Systems, Inc., visit www.appliedopticalsystems.com.

Ed Sullivan is a technology writer based in Hermosa Beach, California

About Applied Optical Systems

Applied Optical Systems is known for its design and manufacture of fiber optic interconnects for harsh and rugged environments. Founded in 2004, AOS provides a broad range of products built on its senior management team's combined 76 years of experience in fiber optic networking, connector design, and manufacturing. The company is dedicated to solving customers' fiber connectivity issues through the efficient application of passive fiber-optic components, cabling, systems, and leading fiber optic technologies. Through its F-LinkTM technology, AOS provides customers with the tools needed to "combine and streamline most fiber optics and electrical power applications."

The company describes its F-Link connector family as "the ultimate configurable fiber optic or hybrid (fiber optic-electrical) interconnect solution to meet the majority of commercial, industrial, and military application needs." It's a patent-pending connector platform that begins with configurable pin or socket insert caps, which can be added to the plug or receptacle. According to the company, a series of modules are provisioned into male or female cavities. This forms an active channel for fiber pins, fiber optic sockets, electrical pins, electrical sockets, or dummy modules to seal unwanted cavities. The F-LinkTM system, combined with F-LinkTM hybrid or fiber optic cable style back shells, "can accommodate any configuration up to 32 channels, with any combination of fiber optic or #16 AWG electrical contacts."

In 2007, AOS achieved two significant milestones in its pursuit of excellence as a world-class supplier of rugged military fiber optic connectors and cable assemblies for the U.S. and allied militaries. First, the company was certified by the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) as a fully qualified supplier of MIL-C-83522 single terminus (ST) fiber optic connectors and adapter sleeves. Multi-mode and single-mode connectors, available in stainless steel or nickel-plated brass with "locking" or "non-locking" boots, are among the qualified products that were validated by the Defense Supply Center, Columbus (DSCC).

Another milestone was the DoD's certification of the AOS manufacturing facility in Plano, Texas, as a MIL-STD-790F facility. A comprehensive on-site audit by DSCC confirmed that the facility met all requirements for producing high-quality fiber optic connectors and cable assemblies for use by the U.S. Armed Forces.

"Applied Optical Systems is proud to be recognized by the U.S. military as a qualified supplier of military grade fiber optic connectors and cable assemblies," said Thomas Hazelton, general manager and president of AOS, in a prepared statement. "These certifications reflect the high standards of quality that Applied Optical Systems maintains across all of our products and our dedication to ensuring that our customers receive the highest quality and most reliable fiber optic products available today, at competitive prices. We appreciate the confidence the U.S. military has expressed in our products and our people, as evidenced by these certifications."

Applied Optical Systems manufactures its fiber optic connectors at its manufacturing facility in Texas.

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