Reliability of Exercise Equip as it Joins the Connected Home

Terrence Murphy and Christopher Rowland, TE Connectivity


Exercise equipment manufacturers are also driving the increase in connectivity

Figure 1. TE Connectivity’s Universal MATE-N-LOK connectors are high reliability power connectors that use a combination of pins and sockets intermixed in the plug and cap housings to achieve excellent electrical performance.

The way consumers use personal exercise equipment at home is changing, and so are their expectations for that equipment, such as treadmills, ellipticals, and stair climbers. Today, they expect these machines to be as smart, connected, and sophisticated as machines found in their local gyms – if not more. The growth of fitness trackers and wearables is increasing this push for exercise equipment that fits comfortably into their connected home ecosystem. For designers, more functionality and connectivity mean choosing reliable components and power connections has never been more critical.

Exercise equipment manufacturers are also driving the increase in connectivity and need for higher reliability as they try to differentiate in a market with extended lifecycles. Like major home appliances and other long life-cycle products, consumers purchase exercise equipment with the expectation of it being a long term buy. Any customer that chooses an alternative product is a customer that could be lost for a decade or more.

Power Connector Choice Drives Reliability

Due to an increase in functionality, home exercise equipment must support more connectivity, features, electronics, memory requirements and the ability to withstand potential failure points to meet consumers’ demands.

For example, mid- to high-end treadmills and similar home fitness machines now include precise speed controls and interactive touch screens. TV-sized displays allow you to virtually engage with your friends, participate in a class, select a trail to ride or run on, and interact with a personal trainer. Manufacturers are also adding a plethora of electronics, multiple circuit boards that interconnect and more. Adding functionalities means more sensors and complex connections to protect.

Much of this equipment is mirroring complex, multi-subsystem applications, like appliances, with the interactive touch displays, voice controls, and Wi-Fi capability. These connectivity integrations are increasing the accuracy of the equipment and allowing for many new opportunities in home exercise equipment. Whether consumers are tracking their heart rate, speed, breathing or calories, the integration of connectivity into exercise equipment can enable accurate outputs, improving the consumer’s experience. Having accurate readings, especially a data point like your heart rate, is very important for someone who is utilizing their exercise equipment for medical reasons.

Designers need to consider space savings, reliability, resistance to vibration and even assembly and maintenance when designing for these types of applications. They will also need to look for component features that complement a high-power, high vibration environment. Components such as power connectors can help these machines to perform at the consumer’s expectations.

Desired Power Connector Features

Power connector features to look for that enhance quality and reliability include:

·       Connector position assurance (CPA)

·       Terminal position assurance (TPA)

·       Color coding

·       Keying

·       Sealing

Devices like the CPA and TPA lock the connector and the terminals to ensure contacts are fully seated in the housing. These protective features help eliminate contact back-outs and help ensure that power is consistently driven under vibration conditions. Power connectors with optional CPA and TPA features help minimize loss in connectivity when you have heavy vibration from an average size adult running for 60 minutes at a speed of 7 miles an hour or using an elliptical at a high intensity level.

In treadmills, we see multiple wire-to-wire connections, many on a 2-, 3-, and 4-circuit. Having many wire connections with the same position counts can make it difficult to differentiate during assembly. Using color-coded connectors can improve ergonomics in the assembly process simply by making these different connection types clearer so assembly errors can be reduced.

Color coding and keying are other features that take error-proofing a step further, so assemblers cannot physically mate incompatible connections. For example, a red connector with keying  should not mate to blue and vice versa. They can only mate to their matching color and matching key.

Designing in sealed connectors to withstand liquid or chemical spray and splashing is a proactive step many designers are taking to help prevent connectivity problems due to high humidity, machine cleaning or even sports drink and water spills.

High-Reliability Power Connector Examples

High reliability power connectors in TE Connectivity’s (TE) portfolio offer wire-to-wire, wire-to-panel, and wire-to-board configurations, including the MATE-N-LOK and POWER TRIPLE LOCK connectors.

Universal MATE-N-LOK connectors use a combination of pins and sockets intermixed in the plug and cap housings to achieve optimum electrical performance. Housings include positive polarization, positive locking, and rear cavity identification for easy, error-resistant assembly. The contacts are enclosed in the housings and are removable for system flexibility.

The POWER TRIPLE LOCK connectors were developed for more robust power and signal applications, with triple protection against vibration. The cap (or header) and plug latch together, the CPA device locks the cap and plug together, and the TPA device helps ensure terminals are fully seated and remain in place.  Additionally, there are four keying options, multiple colors and snagless design features to help ensure fast, accurate connections on the assembly line.

Click image to enlarge

Figure 2. TE Connectivity’s POWER TRIPLE LOCK connectors are high reliability power connectors designed for robust power and signal applications.

No matter what component supplier or product you choose, design choices should be led by priorities essential to reliability, power and functionality for each machine—such as current level needed, space savings on the board, connectivity and signal needed for consumer interactivity, vibration resistance required, and ease of assembly. Keep in mind that miniaturization trends for saving board space, adding functionality or reducing bill of materials need to be factored into your design. Smaller centerlines may require the same or higher current rating as older fitness machine models with larger centerlines, but smaller connectors that can handle the power will be needed.

Signal, Sensors and Apps

Power connectors are at the core of any device where there is a motor that is doing a significant amount of work to drive the system. This power enables more signal connections and sensors which have become increasingly important as functionality and connectivity increase. The exercise experience is changing due to capabilities of virtual type features. Consider stationary bicycles and how the indoor cycling market has drastically and quickly changed. Smart bikes enable riders to ride virtually with friends, download training plans, test and track personal health metrics (speed, distance, weight, heart rate, calorie count), and participate in remote instructor-led classes from the privacy of their own home. With all these new functions, exercising at home no longer has to be a solo experience.  

Sensors need to be powered as part of the overall system to enable this type of advanced functionality. Features that used to be considered “nice to have” are now expected in our more health-conscious and connected world. Accuracy of health metrics has become paramount as more people exercise for health reasons or due to certain health conditions and expect to be able to track their own progress with reliable data, and even share that data with their doctors.

Signal is equally as important, as these exercise machines have more touch screens, user interfaces and electronics. As part of connected home and smart fitness device trends, consumers expect to be able to connect to TV or the internet while exercising. It’s not uncommon to see display screens on treadmills and stationary cycles that are 27 and 32 inches across—sizes that match many home TVs. Consumers also expect Bluetooth capabilities to sync their workout data with their favorite fitness apps, wearables and personal health devices. 

With many interactive functionalities being added to exercise equipment, reliability and compatibility of the entire system is a must. Connectivity is advancing fast, making it even more important to design for the future when dealing with equipment that has a lifecycle of several years. These products will need to do the job they are advertised to do to maintain the trust of the consumers. 

Future proofing designs

As home exercise equipment becomes more connected and advanced, designers need to think about this equipment in terms of the entire connected home ecosystem. In a connected home, we need to anticipate what smart devices consumers will want their exercise equipment to interact with.

Consumers are already tracking their own health data, and with telemedicine on the rise, it’s reasonable to expect home exercise equipment to seamlessly share that data with doctors. HVAC systems could sense humidity rising in the room during heavy exercise and turn on the cooling system. A signal from the exercise machine could trigger the cooling system to go on automatically as exercise starts or adjust the setting on the thermostat to keep heat from turning on during a workout. A security system could alert you when someone rings your door bell and show you who is there on the TV display. That same user may want the machine to interact with an online music-streaming service to play saved workout playlists.

Like the connected home itself, opportunities are endless. Exercise equipment has the potential to notify consumers of anything—from how much time is left on the food in the oven to checking on the children playing in the other room—while running on a treadmill. It’s up to the designer to imagine these opportunities and choose reliable, high quality components that will power the functionality of the future. These components may be invisible to the end customer, but they are vital to the user experience as continued growth of the connected home market hinges on consumer buy-in and trust.

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