As a result, leading RF chipset and component manufacturers are increasingly fine-tuning and improving their products to do just that.
According to Semtech, both LoRa and LoRaWAN are already the “de facto technology for Internet of Things (IoT) networks worldwide” and will provide long-range connectivity for a variety of IoT applications including next generation “smart” everything – cities, homes, buildings, agriculture, metering, supply chain and logistics, and others.
To accomplish this PCB effective-area reduction task, leading chipset manufacturers like Semtech create reference designs – technical blueprints of a system – that third parties can adapt and modify as required for their products’ applications.
“The starting point is the chipset, but the chipset requires specific RF circuitry to connect to the antenna,” explained Manuel Carmona of Johanson Technology, a specialist in high frequency ceramic components including chip antennas, integrated filters/baluns, High Q capacitors and EMI chip filters.
For the LoRa platform, specifically, the ability to integrate all the RF components into a much smaller, low profile package would only increase the attractiveness of the chipset for miniaturized, battery powered IoT products. Without this option, OEM’s would have to design the entire capacitor/inductor scheme and mount many separate components onto the printed circuit board.
“OEMs now have the option to utilize the integrated solution as opposed to the Inductor and capacitor discrete solution. Using a Johanson Integrated Passive Device or 'IPD' makes the final PCB size smaller and simpler,” said Carmona. “Also, any changes in the geometry of the layout can affect the output performance, battery life and signal range.”
In this case, the RF circuitry required is used to convert the signal from differential to single-ended in a specific impedance ratio using an impedance matching network and a balun. Most chipsets require this type of conversion due to the differential, two pin input/output configuration to connect with the single-ended antenna.
“For many chipsets, the output straight out of the chipset is usually not matched to 50 ohms, which requires one to have an impedance matching network that must be designed in order to avoid loss of power signal, reduced battery life, and decreased signal range,” said Carmona.
To meet the requirements, Johanson Technology collaborated with Semtech to develop an IPD that serves as an Impedance-Matched-Balun-Filter.
Manufactured using Low Temperature Cofired Ceramic (LTCC) technology that allows the passive components to be layered '3-dimensionally', IPDs deliver the same functionality as 10-40 individual RF components. With this approach, the entire front-end between the chipset and the antenna is manufactured in a single, ultra-low profile package that is less than 40% the total size of the same circuit comprised of discrete components.
With this device, which combines an impedance matching network, balun, and a filter, the entire front-end RF circuitry is reduced to a single EIA 0805 (2.0mm x 1.25mm) SMT component.
The Impedance-Matched-Balun-Filter is designed to operate within the license-free 868 MHz RF band used in Europe and the 915 MHz band for Australia and the Americas. The product pairs seamlessly with Semtech’s LoRa and LoRa Smart Home RF transceivers SX1261, SX1262, and LLCC68.
“The IPD is a plug-and-play solution for OEMs utilizing the Semtech LoRa® chipsets,” explained Carmona. “By working with leading manufacturers, we complete all the R&D and ensure it is optimised for a specific chip. Not only will it work, but it will comply with any FCC and ETSI regulatory emissions requirements.”
IPDs deliver another significant benefit: increased reliability. By creating a literal circuit within a small LTCC package, variability and potential points-of-failure are all but eliminated when compared to mounting many discrete components.
“A lot of the variability of “solo” surface-mounted components is due to the individual variance of each component. When you multiply that by 10 to 20 components, you just need one weak link in the RF chain for the entire front-end to fail,” added Carmona.
“We have to guarantee that the performance of this much smaller solution is equal or better than their larger discrete solution,” said Carmona. “So, each integrated package is thoroughly 100% RF tested to ensure all the components are working properly and are integrated together.”
According to Carmona, Johanson Technology’s background in material development is the key to being able to create the entire circuit in such a small package. The product utilizes a novel proprietary ceramic material in an LTCC (low temperature co-fired ceramic) manufacturing process designed to improve performance to High-Q levels.
The process to manufacture IPDs is similar to the technology already used to create multi-layer SMD component parts, such as capacitors and inductors. However, low temperature co-fired ceramic (LTCC) manufacturing allows the circuits to be embedded in as many as 40 separate layers in a three-dimensional package that is still very low profile.
“We are a materials company first and foremost,” explained Carmona. “We are constantly developing new ceramic materials that will better integrate circuits, reduce power consumption, and eliminate power loss.”
Because IPDs require much less board space, IoT devices with RF circuitry can be designed in much smaller form-factors.
“With PCB real estate at a prime, the size and placement of the passive components are critical because as everything gets smaller it becomes increasingly difficult to place more components on the board,” explained Carmona. “Therefore, design engineers are looking to component manufacturers to deliver miniaturized solutions that occupy next to no real board space.”
Beyond size, a smaller PCB can also impact the aesthetics of a product, allowing for slim, low profiles. The elimination of components on a 10:1 or greater basis also reduces the overall weight of devices, even if that savings is measured in tenths of grams.