Unicam Innovation Story | Corning

The Engineering of Easy: UniCam® Connectors

The Engineering of Easy: UniCam® Connectors

Before the radical idea, there was the problem.

For years, the installation of cable networks field connectors was a fairly time-consuming process. To ensure the seamless flow of data-forming light, each hair-thin strand of glass fiber had to be glued into a connector. Technicians had to tote along portable ovens to heat-cure the special epoxy.

After waiting for the connector to finish curing, the technician would clean and polish the components by hand to ensure the pristine surface required for optical transmission.

On average, it took six to eight minutes to terminate a single connector. Results varied widely, based on the skill and experience of the technician. As recently as the mid-1990s, that’s just how it was.

But as carriers everywhere began to embrace the fast transmission capabilities of optical fiber networks, Corning engineers knew they had to find a better way.

Instead of spending all of that time and effort in the field to make the connectorised fiber pristine, they reasoned, what if instead we supplied customers with a connector that already had a near-perfect end face, courtesy of a factory-polished fiber stub inside? What if that connector only required the technician to quickly cleave and clean the field fiber, then insert it into the connector?

The result was our UniCam(R) Connector, the world’s first no-epoxy, no-polish connector – letting technicians perform that eight-minute process in under a minute, and with far more accurate results.

Controversial for its time, the UniCam Connector is the most widely deployed connector technology in the world today.

Transmitting light through…gel?

With such great efficiency to offer, why was this new idea so controversial in the optical network industry?

Instead of the light transmitting “uninterrupted” through the field fiber, the UniCam Connector would instead route the light to a new fiber stub inside of a connector. No matter how precise the cleave of the field fiber, there would inevitably be some small gap between the field fiber and the fiber stub. This, naturally, did not bode well for optical transmission.

Fortunately, Corning scientists know plenty about how to optimise materials for the transmission of light. (We invented the world’s first low-loss optical fiber for communications by doing just that.) They created a specialised gel that bridges the gap within the connector body and precisely matches the transmission properties of the glass fiber.

It was a complex technological breakthrough, but for field technicians, it made things simple. They’d slide the field fiber into the connector, getting it as close to the fiber stub within as possible, then let the gel do the work in the tiny gap in between.

This index-matching gel –  so named because it matches the refractive index of fiber, which allows it to propagate light – raised plenty of eyebrows within the industry. Did it really work? Wouldn’t it dry out or become unstable or lose effectiveness over time? Could it possibly work as well as a traditional, “uninterrupted” fiber connection?

The performance of UniCam Connectors now speaks for itself. Over the past 20 years, doubts about the technology have faded and more than 50 million connectors have been deployed in optical networks worldwide. The gel is consistently reliable, provides superior optical performance, and has proven to have a shelf life far longer than the networks it serves.

But we didn’t stop there.

From children’s drinking cups to scientists’ brains

While others were trying to imitate the no-epoxy, no-polish convenience of our UniCam Connectors, we worked with our customers to put this revolutionary new technology to work. And in the process, we kept looking for ways to make it even easier.

Technicians initially cammed, or locked, the field fiber into the connector using a small tabletop tool. While the device was far smaller and more portable than the equipment that traditional connectors used, we couldn’t help noticing that in the field, flat surfaces aren’t always easy to come by.

So we evaluated designs for a handheld tool that technicians could easily carry while climbing above ceilings, crawling under floors, or sitting beside a traffic system cabinet next to an eight-lane highway. But that portability meant it would have to be tough. After all, a handheld tool that can go anywhere can get dropped from just about anywhere too.

Our engineers, many of whom had young children at home, started noticing the remarkable durability of their toddlers’ “sippy cups.” Whether hurled in mid-tantrum, dropped down concrete stairs, or flung across the room in burst of exuberance, standard cups appeared virtually indestructible.

Inspired by the tough material, the engineers created a similar robust outer shell for the handheld tool. The prototype held up handsomely in field testing. And in one informal – but memorable – test, a development engineer launched the tool 20 feet down a hallway to prove a point to a sceptical product line manager. While we don’t recommend the practice, it did prove a point – because the tool still worked perfectly.

After all the testing and tweaking, here was the result: A tool that that technicians can easily grip and operate with a single hand, durable enough to risk some extreme environments - and even a stop/go light to signal when the connector is properly terminated.

Who could ask for anything more? Well…we can.

The engineering of easy

Our customers were enthusiastic about how we’d made fiber termination easier, from the connector technology itself to the simple tools required to install it.
But for many of our customers, fiber connector termination is something they may only do only occasionally. It’s also a vocational area with many new technicians needing to learn quickly. A steep learning curve just isn’t practical.

So we leveraged our great relationships with our customers and immersed ourselves in the world of user experience innovation. We sat in labs and went out to busy highways and dark basements, watching technicians – new and experienced alike – as they used our product, over and over and over again. We asked them questions, and they asked us questions too. And we used that information to create an innovative toolkit to make using UniCam Connectors even faster and easier.

The High-Performance Toolkit can hang by a hook from a ladder, a doorknob or any other spot where technicians might find themselves. Each tool snaps into its own moulded-in spot in the toolkit, keeping everything securely in place even if the case is open and dangling. The tools are also laid out in exactly the order you use them, with clear pictographs above each one. Even if it’s been weeks or months since the last time you installed a UniCam Connector, the process is instantly easy to remember and follow from the moment you open the toolkit.

A connector that performs flawlessly and saves time, combined with a toolkit that can go nearly anywhere and be used by nearly anyone, right out of the box – it’s the sort of material and optical innovation and customer understanding that reflects the very best of Corning.

And it’s another reason why Corning is the leader in making the world better-connected than ever before.