Electronic Design
Making the Case for Smart Digital Controllers

Making the Case for Smart Digital Controllers

Engineers and developers love to talk about the promise of new technology - which is why everyone is talking about the Smart Grid. In fact, there's so much interest that there's a SmartGrid-related conference scheduled virtually every week during 2011.

While much of the talk at these gatherings is about enabling demand/response for the mammoth industrial, office and home systems that account for the majority of power consumption, the conversation is turning to the potential savings that also maybe achieved by monitoring and controlling power consumption among small devices called plug loads - devices that account for as much as 15 percent of home power use and in the vicinity of 20 percent of commercial power use.

Enabling these billions of everyday devices to become part of the Smart Grid equation requires that CE manufacturers upgrade from conventional analog- controlled power supplies to new,"smart" digitally-controlled units. Power supplies that communicate facilitate their participation in energy management systems. Once communication is enabled, a whole series of other innovations and benefits also become possible.

Trouble is, for many CE and EPS (electrical power systems) manufacturersthe word "upgrade" has been synonymous with "higher cost." Fortunately, there's a solution to that concern on the near horizon and plenty of other good reasons to consider implementing a digitally-controlled EPS.

Cost-Neutral Digitally-Controlled EPS Solution

Historically, the availability of cheap-to-manufacture, profitable-to-sell analog-controlled power supplies has offered little motivation for manufacturers or vendors to change the half-century-old model of static power delivery. Although load devices have migrated to digital control for managing the many power rails in today's electronic products, that has not been the case with external power adapters. Manufacturers have long contended they'd gladly migrate to more efficient smart digital controllers, but most have cited the added cost as the primary barrier to doing so.

However, higher cost as a justification for continuing to produce analog- controlled power supplies is fast becoming moot as innovative solutions that remove these cost barriers come onto the market, and as manufacturers conclude they already have realized every possible cost or performance efficiency available via analog-controlled topologies. With cost no longer a motivator for maintaining the status quo or a reason to avoid digital, the question evolves from "Why migrate to digital control?" to "What are we waiting for?"

Although mixed-signal processors targeting power conversion applications in the load have been available for some time, it wasn't until earlier this year that the first advanced System-on-Chip processor expressly designed to meet the unique requirements of the external power supply market was introduced, offering power supply manufacturers control over their power train and improved system performance while providing greater flexibility to quickly satisfy end- customer demands . With the first cost-neutral digital controller solutions slated to be commercially available in 2012, it is inevitable that CE manufacturers will expand the range of products that benefit from smart power- enabled power supplies, particularly as the cost barrier to entry has been removed.

In fact, The Darnell Group has conservatively projected that 30 percent of the 2.2 billion analog power adapters bundled with consumer electronic devices each year will be digitally controlled by 2013 as more developers recognize that they can integrate digital control into power adapter topologies without increasing production costs.

That's great for manufacturers ready to make the leap to digital. But what about those who aren't so sure how or when they want to roll out a Smart Grid connected EPS?

Ease of Migration Through Staged Deployment

Manufacturers not yet ready to enable communication with the Smart Grid still benefit from a digitally controlled EPS that delivers superior overall efficiency, greater flexibility in design, easier debugging, power monitoring, better self-diagnostics, support for richer, non-linear control algorithms and the potential to compensate for parts with broader tolerances, meaning lower cost components may be used.

With the benefits of implementing digital communication in EPS becoming more apparent by the day, the time has come for all this "talk" about implementing digital control to translate into action. Now the question is: Who will be the leaders?

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