Optisnap Innovation Story

Where Innovation Meets Simplicity: OptiSnap® Connectors

OptiSnap® Connectors

Before the Radical Idea, There Was the Problem.

For years, the installation of cable network field connectors was a time-consuming process. To ensure a 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 still had to clean and polish the components by hand to ensure a 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 that time and effort in the field, they reasoned, “what if 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 OptiSnap® connector, the world’s first no-epoxy/no-polish (NENP) connector. With it, technicians could perform that 8-minute process in under a minute, and with far more accurate results.

Transmitting Light Through…Gel?

With such great efficiency to offer, why was this new idea so controversial?

Instead of the light transmitting “uninterrupted” through the field fiber, the OptiSnap connector would 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 a small gap between the field fiber and the fiber stub. Naturally, this would impact optical transmission.

Fortunately, Corning scientists know plenty about optimizing materials for the transmission of light. After all, we invented the world’s first low-loss optical fiber for communications by doing just that. They created a specialized gel that bridged the gap within the connector body and precisely matched 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 as possible, then let the gel do the work in the tiny gap in between.

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

The performance of our OptiSnap connector speaks for itself. Over the past 20 years, doubts about the technology have faded as more than 50 million connectors have been deployed in optical networks worldwide. The gel is consistently reliable, provides superior optical performance, and has 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 attempting to imitate our NENP technology, we were working with our customers to put the revolutionary new technology to use in the field. And while doing so, 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 flat, stable surfaces aren’t always easy to come by in the field.

We evaluated designs for a handheld tool that technicians could easily carry while climbing above ceilings, crawling under floors, or sitting beside a cabinet next to an 8-lane highway. That portability meant it had to be tough. After all, a handheld tool that can go anywhere can also get dropped from anywhere.

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 a burst of exuberance, these cups appeared virtually indestructible.

Inspired by the tough material, we 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 skeptical product line manager. While we don’t recommend the practice, it did prove a point – the tool still worked perfectly.

After all the testing and tweaking, we delivered  a tool that technicians could easily grip and operate with a single hand, that was durable enough to weather extreme environments, and that featured a stop/go light to signal when the connector was properly terminated.

Who could ask for anything more? Only Corning.

The Engineering of Easy

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 some of our customers, fiber termination is something they may do only occasionally. When new technicians need to learn quickly, a steep learning curve just isn’t practical.

We leveraged our customer relationships and immersed ourselves in their user experience. 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. We used that information to create an innovative toolkit that made using OptiSnap connectors even more convenient.

The result? The OptiSnap™ high-performance toolkit, which 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  customized spot in the toolkit, keeping everything secure 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. Whether it’s been weeks or months since you last installed an OptiSnap connector, the process is 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 optical innovation and customer understanding that reflects the very best of Corning.

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