Japanese material manufacturer Nitto Denko’s new plastic optical cable reminds us that, behind the scenes of the IoT lies an unassuming but essential world that feeds our insatiable appetite for data.
Our digital lives are constantly producing, demanding and transferring data. Beyond the veil of the IoT, automated manufacturing and the rise of smart cars, is a hidden world of supporting infrastructure and material science – the strings that make the puppets dance.
There may be nothing glamorous about plastic fibre-optic cables or display polarizers, but these are the sort of products that enable new technologies, such as 8k televisions and the latest bezel-less devices. Without materials scientists, we would have no iPhones, smart cars or VR goggles.
Changing the world from unseen places
Renowned household technology brands all contain components from material manufacturers like Nitto Denko. The Japanese company is still relatively unknown in the west – its slogan is, ‘Changing the world from unseen places’. Yet, it has been ranked in Clarivate Analytics’s Top 100 Innovators for the past 6 years running. And, as the latest lead sponsor of the ATP Finals in tennis, it is looking to raise brand awareness and shine a light on its numerous niche offerings.
When it was founded in Tokyo, in 1918, Nitto produced electric insulation products. Since then it has expanded into numerous medical and material niches, aiming to produce the very best in each specialism. The widespread use of its optical films and polarizers in smartphones means that it has seen huge growth in recent years. The company now boasts 30,000 employees across 70 countries and $8 billion in annual sales.
How plastic optical cables enable IoT
On Friday, I got the chance to take a first look at Nitto’s new high-speed, large-capacity plastic optical cable. On the surface, this may not seem particularly newsworthy. Fibre optic cables, after all, are far from new – we’ve been using this kind of data transmission system since German physicist Manfred Börner demonstrated its potential at Telefunken Research Labs in Germany, in 1965.
However, we’re now seeing the rise of plastic optical fibre [POF], sometimes referred to as ‘consumer’ optical fibre because of its low production and installation costs and suitability for short-range applications. POF stands to be enormously important in facilitating the future of IoT. Nitto’s own fluorine-based product is the culmination of 30 years of material development and research.
While POF can’t span oceans like its glass cousin (it’s maximum range is around 100 metres), it boasts several advantages. It is a fraction of the diameter of traditional glass optical cables, which, combined with the use of plastic, makes it cheaper to produce and far more flexible. Glass cables are very difficult to handle and prone to degradation when manipulated. POF, on the other hand, can be tied in a knot and still function perfectly.
Perhaps its most notable strength is a bandwidth of up to 100 Gigabits per second (Gbps), offering the future-proofing users will demand from network infrastructure. Nitto’s POF is also heat resistant up to 105°C (existing products are limited to 70-80°C), extremely light and doesn’t cause electrical noise that can interfere with devices.
Potential POF applications
These strengths combine to make POF perfect for use in home and industrial networks, medical robotics and smart cars. The rising popularity of superfast broadband means the home network will need to facilitate multi-gigabit per second speeds, which POF enables at costs that homeowners can afford. Our escalating television resolutions are also increasing the bandwidth requirements of their connections. POF is able to supply 8k signals with no loss of quality in a thin, unobtrusive cable.
The flexibility, bandwidth and heat resistance of plastic fibre optics will also help in a range of industrial settings, and the absence of electrical noise (that could interfere with medical equipment) means it’s perfect for use in surgical robots and other hospital appliances.
Mass production is currently timetabled for 2019, allowing Nitto to promote its POF at the 2020 Olympics, in Tokyo. What could be a more fitting setting for the launch of a high-speed data transfer solution than a home-city celebration of the world’s fastest and strongest, in a frenzy of broadcasting, data creation and communication?