At the heart of everything is power, electricity itself, the ultimate resource. Where it comes from is fairly simple. A power plant somewhere owned by some utility company sends ac down a bunch of cables into an array of outlets in our homes, offices, and design labs. From there, we plug in devices that have power supplies in them that convert the ac to not only dc, but the proper level of dc to power said device. Pretty easy, huh?
It’s not quite so simple for the power-source OEMs and designers that create and deliver those supplies and converters. Of all the market’s contributors they are probably the most challenged, forcing them to be the most creative. Power designers have to meet stringent energy efficiency mandates, create high-power sources that fit on the head of a pin, and address numerous other quirky and ever-changing requirements. And these parsers of the power rarely receive the high accolades that their customers get for the designs that use their innovations.
Exactly what are the most outstanding challenges power-source manufacturers and OEMs are facing in 2012? Are they economical, technical, both, or other?
“They are technical, economical, and human resources related. End users and system designers are requesting designs that provide more power, yet are smaller and lighter,” says James P. Stossel, vice president of sales and marketing at Abbott Technologies.
“The resulting use of machines to perform many currently manual manufacturing processes will decrease staff costs, but increase the need for capital. Finally, power supplies and transformers are not sexy, and most new college graduates do not aspire to the field,” he says.
“The current challenge for power products suppliers is developing architectures and topologies to support the high-current requirements of smart phones and tablets that use quad-core processors,” says Don Travers, product marketing manager for the Power and Wireless Business Unit at austriamicrosystems.
“With the significant increase in screen resolution for both phones and tablets, maintaining the update rate for games, videos, and just switching between application screens requires a significant amount of current to support the application processor core,” Travers continues.
“In higher-power configurations, power regulation efficiency needs to be maintained, which typically means larger chip size, thus higher costs. The challenge is to be able to develop solutions which maintain high efficiency while lowering cost,” he says.
“Basically, lack of forward visibility with demand,” says Paul Cuff, CEO of Calex Manufacturing, citing the key challenge he sees. “We are facing sporadic demand patterns from a good percentage of our customer base.”
“Energy efficiency and total cost-of-ownership are becoming increasingly important for end customers,” says Patrick Le Fèvre, marketing and communication director at Ericsson Power Modules. “This means that power-source manufacturers need to develop new products with higher efficiency, but also with increasing flexibility to control and optimize energy distribution.”
“Two major challenges power supply manufacturers face today are to reduce the total cost of ownership of their systems over the life of the product and to also make them more economical in terms of their power consumption, i.e., make them green,” says Tony Armstrong, Linear Technology’s director of power product marketing.
“Efficiency, efficiency, efficiency” is the greatest challenge, says William Smith, director of product management, dc-dc power products at Murata Power Solutions. “Balancing all the pressures to reduce BOM (bill of materials) costs while still maintaining an edge in technology/performance, continuous improvement in quality levels, and the critical technical support during the power design stage.”
“Energy efficiency continues to be the most important topic for power supply designers in the near future,” says Sami Kiriaki, vice president of power management at Texas Instruments. “End-equipment designs are becoming more portable, and tomorrow’s power supplies will need to deliver more power more efficiently in smaller form factors.”
Looking more on the economical side, David Norton, vice president of marketing at TDK-Lambda Americas, points to pricing pressures. “With rising labor costs in China and the Far East along with the increases in commodity prices, purchasing functions inside of companies are now faced with price increases, rather than the accustomed cost reductions,” he says.
Semi Makers Help The Cause
On the other side of almost all power supplies is a plethora of circuits made up of a wide array of semiconductors. These devices draw power and, in some cases, lots of it.
Semiconductor makers like Energy Micro are supporting power designers with devices that keep power consumption low. The company’s now famous EFM32 Gecko line of space- and power-saving microcontrollers (MCUs) recently expanded with fine-pitch BGA48 packaged devices (Fig. 1). Based on the ARM Cortex-M3 processor, they require a current of just 150 µA/MHz when active at clock speeds up to 32 MHz. The devices are available with flash memory configurations up to 32 kbytes and 4 kbytes of RAM.
Operating with inputs from 3 V to 60 V, Linear Technology’s LT3992 monolithic, dual-output step-down dc-dc converter delivers up to 3 A of continuous output current from each channel (Fig. 2). Switching frequency is programmable from 250 kHz to 2.25 MHz, and the device specifies a 95% maximum duty cycle. Package options include the LT3992EUH in a 32-lead, 5- by 5-mm quad flat no-lead (QFN) and the LT3992EFE in an FMEA-tolerant TSSOP-38.
The AS3710 and AS3711 power-management integrated circuits (PMICs) from austriamicrosystems enhance mobile products running off of lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries by enabling quick configuration and providing support for most processors (Fig. 3). Both provide three 4-MHz step-down dc-dc converters, two step-up converters, eight low-dropout regulators (LDOs), four general-purpose I/Os (GPIOs), a 1.5-A charger, an I2C interface, three current sinks, an analog-to-digital converter (ADC), a watchdog timer, and a real-time clock. The AS3710 adds a third booster whereas the AS3711 adds a 3-A step-down converter.
Configuration options include linear and switching charging based on maximizing for efficiency or minimizing space and cost. Both PMICs operate from a 2.7-V to 5.5-V supply over a –40°C to 85°C temperature range and come in 7- by 7-mm QFN56 packages.
Digital power control is a hot technology and Texas Instruments is one of the leaders in the field. Its next-generation, programmable digital power controller for ac-dc and isolated dc-dc power supplies, the UCD3138, integrates a 32-bit microprocessor, precision data converters, multiple programmable hardware control loops, and various communication engines in a 6- by 6-mm package (Fig. 4).
Features include control functions to increase efficiency, i.e., a sync-FET soft on-off control, dynamic phase shedding, dynamic frequency adjustment, and dynamic mode switching. Available in a 40-pin, 6- by 6-mm QFN and a 64-pin, 9- by 9-mm QFN, the device supports all isolated power supply topologies and packs all essential protection features.
Other Fingers In The Pie
It would be ideal if we could work unimpeded by outside forces. However, that idyllic world will never exist. On that note, what current and/or emerging political, governmental, and/or organizational standards and/or mandates are either aiding or impeding power-source designers and OEMs?
Sami Kiriaki sees regulatory and industry requirements, such as Energy Star in the United States, greatly influencing energy efficiency in end-equipment designs in a beneficial way. “Power manufacturers developing products for solid-state lighting see a benefit from the mandatory elimination of incandescent light bulbs in certain countries,” Kiriaki says.
“An obvious one is EnergyStar for appliances always plugged in within the home or office,” says Tony Armstrong. “Another example is the mandatory lower-power consumption regulations that the European government imposes on new buildings. These require that the total power consumption of the structure be 30% lower than those of similar structures built previously. This brings many challenges to the power supply manufacturers to look for new and creative ways of lowering power consumption within their products both in operation and standby mode.”
William Smith points to a specific mandate. “The requirement for testing criteria per IPC9592 in computer and telecom applications is adding pressures on cost and time-to-market objectives,” he says. “While power manufacturers and OEMs can ultimately benefit from the gains in quality/performance, the overall ROI (return on investment) is becoming very difficult to measure, especially in the short term.”
“The EMerge Alliance as very interesting and if implemented could change the power industry significantly with the DC Distribution Bus,” pinpoints David Norton.
“Increased government interference, especially in manufacturing, is increasing costs due to the administrative burden placed on small manufacturers. A global clientele means responding daily to requests for environmental, human resources, and other reports that require management time better spent on improving product quality and on-time delivery,” says James P. Stossel.
“Another aspect increasing costs is the requirement to replace long-proven chemicals, processes, and materials with the current favorite of government, even though the results may increase costs and vulnerability to supply disruptions from sources unfriendly to U.S. interests,” Stossel continues.
“A relatively new tack taken by government is to force private industry to perform oversight functions under the threat of fines or criminal penalties. OEMs are required to ‘flow-down’ quality, environmental, and other regulatory inspections to every layer of the supply chain. This burden widens the protective moat for large established industries, but also means less competition and higher prices as costs increase throughout the supply chain,” he says.
“At the same time, pressure to actually lower prices has become intense from government and large OEMs. A significant amount of the industry has moved, and will continue to move, to countries where these burdens are non-existent or insignificant,” he says.
Mini Power Plants
Proof is in the pudding as they say, and power OEMs are certainly stepping up to meet these challenges and requirements. Here are some of their latest efforts.
Measuring 3.5 by 6.6 by 1.25 in. and weighing less than 5 lb, Abbott Technologies’ CM500 500-W ac-dc power supplies safely handle harsh environments with fully sealed packaging meeting IP65/67 standards (Fig. 5). They handle humidity up to 100%, making them desirable for shipboard apps. They also provide single-phase inputs ranging from 95 to 260 V ac at line frequencies from 47 to 880 Hz.
All input circuits include power factor correction, meet MIL-STD-1399 Section 300 requirements for spike voltage testing, and provide line regulation of ±1%. Output voltage ranges from 12 to 48 V dc, load regulation is ±1% from no to full load, operating temperature spans –40°C to 80°C baseplate with no power derating, ripple and noise are less than 2% peak-to-peak over a 20-MHz bandwidth, and efficiency is better than 85%.
Calex Manufacturing’s 40-W NCM series single-output, chassis-mount dc-dc converter comes in a rugged cast chassis-mount enclosure with protected, recessed barrier strips facing the case top (Fig. 6). Recessed barrier strips allow tight-quarter connections while protecting the strip. All models are fully encapsulated for more protection.
Measuring 2.65 by 4.20 by 1 in. and weighing 345 g, the series offers input ranges of 9 to 18 V dc, 18 to 36 V dc, or 36 to 75 V dc, output voltages of 3.3, 5, 12, and 15 V dc, efficiencies as high as 90%, operating temperature from –50°C to 100°C, remote ON/OFF, output voltage trim, and over-voltage and short-circuit protection.
Back in January, Ericsson unveiled its FRIDA II digital-power advanced bus converter platform. Employing board-mounted dc-dc modules and strategies to reduce energy consumption, the platform enlists a 32-bit ARM7TDMI-S microprocessor core. FRIDA II delivers a 2% regulated output voltage across its operational range from 36 V to 75 V.
An ultra-fast response-loop algorithm adjusts parameters to guarantee output voltage is always within a narrow band. The first FRIDA II component is the BMR456 quarter-brick advanced bus converter offering a minimum of 400-W output, followed by the 250-W BMR457 eighth-brick.
Another January 2012 baby, the Murata Power Solutions ULT series is the industry’s first DOSA-compliant (Distributed-power Open Standards Alliance) 30-W, 1/32-brick dc-dc converter, according to the company (Fig. 7). Measuring 19.1 by 23.4 by 8.89 mm, the components consume less board space than comparable 30-W units and are available in through-hole or surface-mount versions.
Features include a 2:1 input voltage range from 36 to 75 V dc, 12-, 5-, and 3.3-VOut models with lower-voltage versions on the horizon, line regulation typically within ±0.1% of VOut across all VIn conditions at full load, and an external +10% to –20% trim function.
Tailored for hot-swap and redundant power systems, TDK-Lambda’s HFE2500 2.5-kW front-end power supplies (Fig. 8) operate off a universal ac input from 85 to 265 V ac with active power factor correction (PFC). They deliver regulated dc outputs of 12 V, 24 V, or 48 V and achieve efficiencies up to 93%.
Four supplies can be paralleled with automatic load-sharing to provide 9.5 kW of output power. Options include a microcontroller that enables remote programming, monitoring, and status reporting via isolated I2C and PMBus interfaces. HFE2500 supplies measure 1.61 by 4.21 by 12.8 in. and include two temperature-controlled, variable-speed fans. They operate from –10°C to 70°C.
What’s Left To Do?
With efficiency, size, and cost being big concerns, paired with governmental and agency rules and requirements, what sectors offer the most potential for future growth and development in the power field? Will it be consumer, commercial, military, medical, or something else?
“There is absolutely no doubt that the information and communications technology (ICT) industry will continue to be the segment driving growth and innovation, due to the growing demand for faster bandwidth in data-transfer and data-storage applications required by smart phones and tablets,” says Patrick Le Fèvre.
“Because the ICT industry comprises a very large number of applications and a myriad of different devices and equipment, all the segments from local Wi-Fi to huge datacenters supporting the ‘cloud’ will benefit from the networked society,” he says.
“We see that the growth in smart phones and tablets in the consumer market will be the highest growth areas in the near future,” concurs Don Travers.
In addition to ICT, Sami Kiriaki also points out that “there are many potential growth opportunities in solid-state LED lighting, industrial, and motor control systems. Energy harvesting also plays a unique role in point-of-load power design, especially as end-equipment designers look for new ways to tap energy and tie to the grid.”
“The inevitable increasing cost of energy has a created a lot of interest around green power. While hybrid and electric cars grab the headlines, there are a multitude of electronic improvements yet to be made in conventional cars,” says Tony Armstrong.
“The use of LED lighting in vehicles has just started. LEDs were initially implemented for task and display lighting, then in taillights and now with new high-power LEDs for automotive headlights. LED lighting has the advantage of using a fraction of the energy of a conventional incandescent light bulb, operating up to 50,000 hours,” he explains.
“It’s clear that the amount of electronics in new cars will continue to grow, with an increasing emphasis on efficiency and reliability. For these reasons, the automotive market continues to offer significant potential for future growth,” Armstrong says.
“To survive in our market’s pace of high-reliability power supplies and transformers in the 21st century, a company must be flexible and diversify across military, aerospace, and industrial markets while maintaining a distinct value proposition of high-quality, high-reliability, good design, sound technology, and on-time delivery,” James P. Stossel says.
“In the current environment, with government debt keeping the lid on economic growth and threatening markets around the world, while at the same time driving up the costs of commodities and slashing defense spending, the best prospects for growth are in heavy industries such as oil and gas, mining, and construction,” he continues.
“Short term, I believe the focus will be on automation, be it in the factory, medical, military, or commercial segments. The pressure on cost reduction will shift from component costs to overall operating costs, including labor, which can be offset most effectively via automation,” says David Norton.
“We see the largest growth coming from global demands for storage, telecommunications infrastructure, and wireless communications, and particularly from India,” says William Smith.
Paul Cuff agrees with all and therefore gets the final word. “We are optimistic about our future growth opportunities in all market segments.”
- Energy Micro’s EFM32 Gecko VFBGA48 MCU
- Linear Technology’s LT3992 monolithic, dual output step-down dc-dc converter
- austriamicrosystem’s AS3710 and AS3711
- Texas Instruments’ UCD3138
- Abbott Technologies’ CM500
- Calex’s NCM series
- Ericsson’s FRIDA II
- Murata Power Solutions’ ULT series
- TDK-Lambda’s HFE2500