Power management customers can be split into two categories: those who are experts and those for whom power supply design isn't a core competency. The expert customer usually works for a power supply manufacturer or is retained by an original equipment manufacturer (OEM) as the guru or go-to person for all things power. In the case where power supply design isn't the focus of an organization, full turnkey solutions and design automation tools are efficacious; however, this is not the complete case for the expert.
Generally speaking, customers ask themselves two questions when entering into a relationship with a supplier: “What's in it for me?” and “Does it threaten me?” Both questions are rhetorical for the nonexpert who really benefits from reference designs and the semiconductor manufacturer in the role of virtual engineer within their design team. In extreme cases, such as with Original Design Manufacturers (ODMs) in Taiwan, this phenomenon extends to the expectation that a semiconductor partner will invest in their success by placing an experienced engineer in their plant as a de-facto employee, often wearing the customer's uniform and security pass.
Conversely, delivering a full system-level solution constitutes a clear and present danger to the job security of the expert, which is reinforced by years of hard won experience and has developed all the cachet of a black art. Furthermore, the expert customer isn't one you can approach with “Tell me what you want us to make.” Rather, he prefers the straw-dog approach where the supplier ventures an approach to a given problem, outlining the rationale for topology selection and key tradeoffs, seeking constructive critique. In essence, the expert customer wants the supplier to play the role of a knowledgeable colleague, seasoned in power management's “school of hard knocks.”
Two words encompass the real hook for the expert customer requirement: insight and foresight. Expert customers are keen to work with those who have a breadth of power management experience, can anticipate challenges and apply workarounds. Power supply designers perform little pure research, partly because of time-to-market constraints. In recent years, semiconductor manufacturers have performed and sponsored academic research to understand the basic tradeoffs that apply at the silicon level in various applications. This is particularly true in core-power for microprocessors, power factor correction and efficient standby power. Often, the applications engineer has been recruited from the ranks of experienced power supply designers and can work the expert customer's system with sensitivity, understanding the process and anticipating qualification requirements.
The power supply design community is somewhat introverted. Often, each customer believes he is developing a unique solution when he sees competitors and OEMs faced with the same issues working on similar approaches, with a comparable knowledge base. The effective semiconductor partner brings valuable insight into the process because he is informed about technology trends and knows the capability of integrated circuits and the discrete power devices they drive. In many cases, semiconductor manufacturers contribute to the bodies that plot the course of standards and legislation shaping the future of many power management applications.
In summary, the useful semiconductor partner can fill the voids in the insular power supply design community, providing over-the-horizon technical radar and timely inputs on potential obstacles in the path of development. It seems that today's power supply design environment is one in which mitigation of risk and constraint of development cost have become paramount. Now is the moment when a semiconductor supplier with an enlightened approach can make all the difference.
Edward Lam has more than 18 years of engineering and management experience in the semiconductor industry. Prior to his current position, he was product line director of National's Standard Analog Group. He was instrumental in improving profits, lowering costs and developing market strategies. Lam received his bachelor's degree from San Francisco State University. Lam can be reached at [email protected]