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Outlook 2013: The future of analogue

As we approach 2013, the mixed signal and analogue markets will unquestionably play an increasingly important role in the design and operation of electronic systems worldwide. Nowhere is this more evident than in the development of power conversion and power management solutions.

The demand for more efficient power utilisation has long shared top billing with performance and integration as a critical concern – and for good reason. The cost for power and cooling has risen dramatically in the last decade, placing a premium on even the smallest incremental improvements in power efficiency. Add to this the battle to preserve operational reliability while packing more systems operating continuously and with higher performance into smaller spaces and the critical value of every advancement in analogue power conversion and management solutions becomes unmistakeable.

Witness the evolution of the data centre, whose seemingly insatiable demand for more computing power made it mandatory years ago to monitor the current draw and supply voltages of each power rail in each power block. Today, even lower end systems must be monitored closely to enable their performance to be optimised and for any problems that arise to be reported. This requires the ability to convert the measured data to digital signals that may be communicated to the system controllers via I2C or SMBUS. This, in turn, will increase the demand for mixed signal designs over the standard analogue parts used in dc/dc applications.

Typically, the largest drivers for more data centres and servers are cloud computing applications, such as Amazon, and social networking applications like Facebook. Our customers who are developing the servers for these applications constantly strive to reduce their system's power requirements by using higher efficiency converters. This demand has pushed the efficiency of the dc/dc converters for point of load applications beyond the 90% level. However, designers continue to look for incremental improvements of another one or two percent – an improvement that can have a dramatic impact on the overall power requirement of large server equipment, since they use multiple dc/dc converters in each system.

Higher conversion efficiency

The demand for higher efficiency conversion is forcing the semiconductor industry to produce more efficient ICs, including the ubiquitous switching MOSFETs which appear throughout networking and datacom systems. These devices target low voltage, point of load applications. Conversely, semiconductor manufacturers are developing new switching devices for high voltage applications in telecom and industrial systems using GaN FETs or silicon carbon technologies. The increased power conversion efficiency of these new switchers translates to less heat in the system and, therefore, lower cooling costs. In so doing, these new FETs make systems more efficient and reliable due to reduction of heat on their boards, lowering the overall cost of operation requiring less cooling.

The analogue semiconductor industry will continue to be challenged on two additional fronts as it heads into next year – integration and time to market. Micrel's power converter customers typically do not have the time nor the resources to develop their own designs and are, therefore, increasingly dependent on their suppliers to provide complete solutions. Once these products have passed qualification, customers typically reuse the overall design to minimise time to market. Many suppliers offer highly integrated modular solutions for their dc/dc applications, but the costs for these can be prohibitive due to the expensive packaging required. This industry is seeing – and participating in – a substantial push to simplify the packaging, while offering the same or better performance over the existing modules.

Less space for power components

System integration requirements will also continue to challenge designers in the power management space to keep pace with consumers clamouring for more 'bells and whistles' on their mobile phones and for solid state drives that keep getting smaller, but which can store more data and access it more quickly than ever before. Both of these real estate demands leave less space for power conversion components, despite that fact that higher performance dc/dc converters are needed to handle fast load changes with high efficiency at full or light loads.

This basically leaves the engineer two options – eliminate components or reduce their size. They can achieve both by deploying more innovative packaging and by integrating inductors and passive components within the dc/dc regulators. They may also choose to adopt Micrel's HyperSpeed Control solution that eliminates the extra filter capacitors needed to accommodate load transients, thereby reducing real estate usage and lowering the all important bill of materials (BoM).

HyperSpeed Control is a patented control architecture in the latest generation of Micrel's dc/dc conversion products. The approach fills the need for higher efficiency, ultra fast transient response and ease of use with few external components and a minuscule solution size. HyperSpeed Control is a digitally modified, adaptive on time control and ripple injection technique. The digital portion of this control scheme maintains a constant frequency during minor changes in the output current, but switches to constant on time mode to provide fast transient response.

Thus, the designer can choose to either attain improved transient response with the same amount of capacitance as a traditional PWM control scheme or reduce the required output capacitance significantly - up to 40% when compared to traditional PWM architectures - while maintaining the same transient performance. This gives the designer the predictable switching noise of a fixed frequency PWM solution along with ultra fast transient response. Another feature of this patented technology is the ability to maintain extremely tight voltage regulation, even at high VIN/VOUT ratios. External compensation or current sense elements are not required, making these products cost effective and simple to use for a wide range of applications.

Another trend that will assuredly gain momentum as we head into 2013 is the demand from customers for more system level solutions in the form of application specific power management ICs. Much like the product developers in the digital semiconductor realm have done, Micrel is beginning to engage at an early point with its customers, working ever more closely with their system architects and designers as they develop their next generation products to find the optimal solutions for their applications with the lowest BoM cost.

In short, Micrel is being pressed regularly to exchange the typical approach of developing standard analogue power management building blocks that customers must design piecemeal into their products for fully integrated solutions that accommodate the specific requirements of their systems. This places a premium on Micrel deepening its customer relationships, forcing the company to invest in itself more heavily in a solutions mentality on their behalf.

Happily, it also creates the opportunity for Micrel to deepen its understanding of customer needs and to discover at a much earlier point where innovations can best serve customers – something that presents them with greater value.

Micrel
Micrel is a leading global manufacturer of IC solutions for the worldwide analogue, Ethernet and high bandwidth markets. The company's products include advanced mixed signal, analogue and power semiconductors; high performance communication, clock management, Ethernet switch and physical layer transceiver ICs. Company customers include leading manufacturers of enterprise, consumer, industrial, mobile, telecommunications, automotive, and computer products. Micrel's headquarters and wafer fabrication facilities are located in San Jose, CA, with regional sales and support offices and advanced technology design centres throughout the Americas, Europe and Asia.

Author
Brian Hedayati, Vice President of Marketing, Linear & Power Solutions, Micrel

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