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Digital Power Conversion—Disruptive Or Sustaining Technology?

Lou Pechi argues that digital power conversion provides numerous advantages over non-integrated analog approaches and is a breakthrough in the power-conversion industry.

The term disruptive technology can be defined as a new and less expensive technology that enters a market where established technology does not provide the solutions needed by customers. By contrast, a sustaining technology provides small-step product-performance improvements and will almost always be replaced by the new technology.

To illustrate the concept, we can look at the invention of the printing press that replaced the books laboriously handwritten by rows of scriptoria monks, and digital cameras have almost exclusively replaced photographic film.

Initially, the two technologies exist at the same time. As the disruptive technology, through wide performance improvements, starts gaining a foothold in a small part of the market, it is successively adopted by a wider market.

Power conversion has progressed over the years at a relatively slow pace by small sustaining technology improvements. AC to DC conversion using similar circuit topologies changed from selenium rectifiers to vacuum-tube diode regulators, semiconductors, and linear to switching power converters. During the process, efficiencies improved until in the latest DC-DC converters the efficiencies are in the mid 90s. All of these sustaining technology improvements used exclusively more and more sophisticated similar analog conversion methods.

With the proliferation of the number of low voltages on the circuit boards in the newer telecom and data-communications systems, the need for sequencing and control became the next pressing issue. Sustaining technology improvements added some of the control functions externally by using discrete digital controllers which, with the multiplicity of voltages, started taking more and more circuit board space. In order to incorporate the digital controllers effectively into the converters analog conversion had to be replaced by a disruptive technology of digital power conversion. The incorporation of digital conversion opened new horizons of converter programming, control, and management.

During one of the worst electronics downturns ever, as the post-Internet bubble market continued to collapse, Power-One made a strategic move to start developing its own Digital IBA architecture. In this scenario, multiple point-of-load converters can be programmed by a single Digital Power Manager (DPM) that uses a standard I2C protocol to communicate with the main system.

Here are some of the customer benefits:

  • Power-system components and circuit-board traces can be reduced up to 90%. This can result in cost and space savings of 20-50%.
  • The ability to configure, simulate, and debug using a graphical user interface can reduce development time up to 90%, accelerating time to market.
  • Using programmable components, a complete power system can be configured by inventorying as few as two unique part numbers.
  • Real-time telemetry of voltage, current, and temperature for each device facilitates programming fault-management scenarios into host systems.
  • Supports combinations of turn-on, ramp-up, sequencing, and shutdown processes that were previously too cumbersome to implement using analog technologies.
  • Energy savings resulting from improved electrical efficiencies and power turn-on/off sequences optimised to system-level requirements.

Whether we call this a disruptive technology or a sustaining technology is academic. The fact that this technology provides numerous benefits and significant advantages over non-integrated analog approaches is a breakthrough in the power-conversion industry.

The benefits provided to customers are so overwhelming that Digital IBA architectures will follow a similar path of disruptive technology, where initial adoption by a few industry leaders is followed with adoption by the whole market.

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