What is a ribbon cable?

A ribbon cable, sometimes also called a multi-strand flat cable, is a type of electronic cabling that is characterized by its flat, flexible appearance. In many cases, it resembles the type of ribbon used in gift packaging, which is where its name comes from. This type of flexible cable was used extensively in some early computer models, both as a means of internal wiring and as a means of connecting machines to other devices, particularly printers. The cable body or the “tape” itself is usually made of much smaller insulated wires that are joined together to form a long, flat surface. Wires are often color coded in terms of primary function, and manufacturers often also indicate the direction by making the top or top wire a distinct color, typically red, so users can quickly identify which way is up and which is down, for example. In most cases, cables run through a series of conductors and connectors and come in varying sizes depending on their primary use. When they were first introduced, ribbon-type cables were widely considered the industry standard. As technology evolved, however, so did cabling technology, and these parts were largely replaced by smaller, rounded cables for indoor and outdoor use.

Ribbon cables are found on floppy drives.

Main Uses

The ribbon style of cabling was pioneered as a way to facilitate electromagnetic processing in early computer mainframes, but smaller versions can be found in a wide variety of small electronic components. The main idea with a ribbon-like cable is to connect a series of important wires and connect them as one – a concept that, in many ways, simplifies electronics manufacturing and repair. Bundled wires are generally easier to install and reconnect.

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Less often, these cables were also used outside of machines, often as a way of connecting one part to another. They were some of the first to connect the first computers to printers, for example. Although not normally used for power, almost all messages that need to be communicated between devices can be transmitted over cables very effectively.

Security considerations and color coding

In a flat cable, each wire – which is more formally known as a conductor – is used to connect two corresponding contacts. It is very important, then, that the correct wire is connected to each end. Manufacturers have introduced a color-coding system to simplify this process and help avoid connecting the wrong contacts. Most cables have a red stripe on one end, for example, which helps users and technicians identify which end is the top or the start. In another type, each wire is colored differently so they can be easily identified; this variety is sometimes known as “hippie cabo”.

contacts and conductors

Flat cables are distinguished by the number of conductors and the space between them. In the most common size, the conductors are typically 0.05 inches (1.27 mm) apart; this allows for a two-line connector and 0.1 in. pin spacing. (2.54 mm). This tape formation is most often used for enclosed spaces. Cables can have as few as four connectors or as many as 80.

The connecting ends of the cables are forced into a row of electronic contacts through the ends of the cables. The connectors at the end of a ribbon cable are known as insulation displacement connectors. On most cables, there is an insulation offset connector on both ends.

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Understanding connectors

There are five basic connectors which are used in most electronics. The BT224 is the most common, and typically used in computers. PCB transition headers have the same set up as the BT224, but include a second row, while the BT224 has only one. D-subminiture connectors are found on printer ports; while most European computers and printers run off of the DIN41612 connector. DIL headers are commonly used for external connections.

More Modern Equivalents

It’s relatively rare to see ribbon-style cables on modern electronics, which is to say, electronics manufactured since about 2000. In smaller machines the flat surface is often thought to block airflow and create static, for instance, and they can be bulky and awkward to work with. In most places they’ve been replaced by sealed round cables that perform the same basic function, just with a more streamlined and compact shape.

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