The recent Electronica International Trade Fair in Munich was a good vantage point for reading the state and direction of the power industry. It was hard, for example, to overlook the contrast between the cutting-edge feel of the IC hall and the conventional, even clunky, quality of the power-supply hall.
Of course, there were some leading-edge power technologies and products in the power-supply hall, but they weren’t prevalent. The contrast between old and new power products, in itself, suggests a trend. The power industry is at a crossroads.
New technology, always important for some applications, will become more important going forward. At this point, much of the industry doesn’t have new, compelling technology. Those who do have it, especially those who can customize it to suit a particular end use, will find that it opens doors and solves problems. Some end users or applications demand the very best, or they have unique problems to solve, or they can’t get there with conventional technology.
Consider the military. Doing business with it has always been challenging. Demanding performance requirements are a constant. The commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) purchasing and design guidelines added another dimension, and so did the European Union’s Restrictions on Hazardous Substances (RoHS) directive.
More recently, the military has placed more emphasis on reduced size, weight, and power—underscored by use of the acronym SWaP—to improve mobility and minimize power usage. The U.S. military competes with China as the world’s largest consumer of energy. Its increasing use of leading-edge technology such as compute-intensive electronics naturally leads to requirements for advanced power solutions as well.
Automated test equipment (ATE) systems are routinely used to test a wide range of electronic devices and systems including components (such as capacitors), ICs, and fabricated electronic systems. ATE systems typically require advanced power supplies and architectures that can deliver high-quality electrical power (e.g., highly regulated), on time (e.g., enabled by fast transient response) and where (e.g., assisted by small size) it is needed without intruding on the test process (e.g., with low noise). One of the latest technological innovations in ATE is parallel processing using multicore processors, which means leading-edge transient response in the context of power, for example.
Telecom has been characterized by industry standards: quarter brick, eighth brick, standard pinouts, and price. In recent years, it has been undergoing a paradigm shift with regulatory, cultural, and technological forces shaping a new telecom with landlines, wireless, and more.
Reducing overall power consumption has become a priority to reduce operating costs. Bricks with higher power density have become important because they are trying to get more power in the same space to enable them to add more functionality on the board. Again, these requirements are tailor-made for the power supplier with new technology and new answers.
The costs of electricity to operate high-performance computers, such as server farms in a data center, have been increasing to the point where they often exceed the cost of the equipment in just a few years. Conventional power architectures have limited system efficiency because of distribution bus losses and conversion performance.
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Advances in power-train technology have already been shown to increase system efficiency, by, for instance, eliminating step-down stages and enabling direct 48-V to load conversion, leading to a reduction in operating costs as well. The trends? The end has not likely arrived for higher power density, higher efficiency, higher reliability, and lower cost.
Incidentally, higher power density doesn’t often come without paying a price. An increase in power in the same space, for example, requires heat management. Without a commensurate increase in efficiency, the saved space is likely to be taken up by heatsinks, fans, or other forms of thermal management.
In emerging markets such as electric vehicles/hybrid electric vehicles (EVs/HEVs), power products like the dc-dc converter are an important element. The technical challenges for such a converter, many of them interrelated, include size, weight, efficiency, electromagnetic compatibility/electromagnetic interference (EMC/EMI), reliability, high-voltage isolation, heat removal/thermal management, and, of course, cost.
It’s challenging enough to satisfy performance, weight, and other requirements. But in some of these markets, the cost targets are pennies per watt. In addition, of course, reliable performance in the brutal environment of heat, cold, shock, and vibration of a road vehicle is a given.
New Business Models
The old business models, especially for doing business with emerging and technology-driven OEMs, may not apply. Some companies may not have the technical horsepower. Some may step up to address it, and some may not. Some may be able to live with what they have and continue to meet the needs of their markets. Some may go by the wayside.
Not all changes in business models, however, are necessarily technology driven. OEMs seem to be increasingly focusing on their core business and are choosing not to employ a power design team. Most new engineers are coming out of college with digital skills, with fewer focusing on analog. Will these factors drive the industry toward custom power solutions?
In some markets, such as automotive, shared expertise, collaboration, and partnering are the normal way of doing business. It’s a culture shock for power people. Yes, the power industry is at a crossroads.