Integration and process technology are helping mixed signal and analogue developers to create innovative products for sectors from robotics to wearables.

Mixed signal and analogue has always been an important technology, but recent market developments have seen a resurgence in its role – and particularly for the industrial and healthcare sectors. Seemingly worlds apart, industrial and healthcare applications have a lot in common when it comes to the solutions being developed.

There’s a revolution in progress in the industrial sector; it’s being referred to as the fourth industrial revolution – or Industry 4.0. The idea behind Industry 4.0 is the creation of factories which are more integrated, more automated and more flexible. All of this requires more sophisticated solutions – whether it’s the equipment being used to make products or the electronic components featured within them.

Companies building these systems are looking for smaller components that consume less power. You might think it is strange to ask for smaller components when there appears to be a lot of space available, but it’s not as strange as it seems.

Let’s take robots as an example. More capable production systems will not only need more capable robots, but also more of them at one station. So the robots themselves will need to be smaller and this means everything else also needs to be smaller.

The growth in robot sophistication is stunning; not so long ago, robots were only six axis devices. Today, they are 10 and 12 axis machines. But making these complex devices smaller means smaller components.

And that impinges directly on power consumption. On first sight, you might not think that developers of industrial automation equipment would not worry too much about power consumption – but they do. With smaller housings for equipment, the amount of heat generated becomes important, so devices which use power as efficiently as possible will be needed in the future. Semiconductor manufacturers such as Maxim Integrated are working to make products that are faster, smaller, cooler and – importantly – less expensive.

Programmable logic controllers – or PLCs – remain a central part of factory automation systems. Once large and centralised, PLCs have become ever smaller, allowing them to be distributed around factories. By placing micro PLCs as close as possible to the process, latency and the processing load on the host system are both reduced.

The solutions being developed allow multiple discrete components to be replaced with integrated products. These not only simplify the design and reduce the solution size, they can also cut power and heat dissipation by up to 80%. And, with factories often running 24/7, these solutions contribute to less maintenance and more uptime.

There are significant challenges in developing micro PLCs; analogue integration and heat dissipation are just two of them. By using integrated analogue devices, it is possible to bring hundreds of discrete components into one small package.

These solutions also require robustness, not only in terms of handling higher voltages, but also in terms of ESD protection and EMI.

Maxim Integrated is a leader in ESD, introducing its first high ESD product 15 years ago and now offering parts which support 35kV.

A revolution in healthcare

The apparently different healthcare world is seeing a similar revolution, with the appearance of fitness devices and wearable electronics. When it comes to wearables, it’s obvious why components need to be smaller and to consume less power. But the same trends can be seen in more traditional applications found in medical and clinical applications.

One of the areas where much development is in progress is ultrasound. Once a technique only available in fixed locations, portable ultrasound devices are now used routinely in the field – and their users expect similar qualities from these products.

You could look at it in the same way as the digital camera developed. When these moved from 1Mpixel to 2Mpixels, there was a great improvement in image quality. The same has happened with ultrasound, where images are available in colour and medical staff can see things like blood flow; even direction.

Portable ultrasound devices are similar in size to a laptop; they weigh around 4 kg and have a battery life of around 90 minutes. As ultrasound gets more capable, these devices need more channels – and all of this functionality needs to be implemented in a small space and the battery life maintained or even extended.

One of the big challenges in the healthcare domain – particularly in the US – is providing care at lower cost. This means real innovation is needed. Products and systems which can detect problems early could mean simpler procedures would be needed and shorter stays in hospital. Once sent home, the patient can be monitored with personal devices to make sure they’re recovering as expected. Similarly, people might wear devices which monitor chronic conditions on a regular basis. These devices could tell them to see their doctor if they detect abnormal conditions. All of these approaches will need components which are smaller and consume less power.

Meeting the challenges

These smaller devices which consume less power are being developed using a combination of integration and process technology, backed by the tools which designers need to create their products. Not only that, developers of industrial and healthcare products also need to be sure the components they specify will be available for more than 10 years.

When customers are asked whether they want smaller chips, the answer isn’t always ‘yes’. The reason is that the chip is just a small part of the design. Rather than shrinking one chip, the way forward is to shrink the size of the solution by integrating other components.

Integration is important and an approach which Maxim Integrated has used for some time. Discrete solutions take up a lot of board space, but if you integrate the components, the result can be smaller than you might think.

Determining what should and should not be integrated, plus which applications should be targeted, is where Maxim can add a lot of value. But it’s important, when creating integrated solutions, to differentiate between ‘want’ and ‘need’. If the features and functionality that designers ‘want’ is close to what they ‘need’, then integrated solutions can be developed. However, if what they ‘want’ is much more than what they really ‘need’, then it may not always make sense.

Process technology also plays a fundamental role in meeting the challenges which customers set those companies developing mixed signal and analogue products. For example, Maxim has a 180nm process technology that can support high voltages – up to 76V. It’s a core platform, which supports many of Maxim’s products, and has been defined to allow multiple business units to use it and to share IP.

Analogue process technology is not scaling as quickly as digital technologies. While advances in digital processes are enabling solutions, it’s the other way around in the analogue world – solutions are driving developments in process technology. When digital transistors shrink, so too does operating voltage. With analogue processes, when transistors shrink, the operating voltage needs to stay the same because real world voltages don’t change.

For many leading mixed signal and analogue companies, the trend is to develop solutions that help product designers overcome the challenges they face. Through integration and process technology, companies such as Maxim Integrated are rising to the challenges.

Maxim Integrated

Founded over 30 years ago, Maxim Integrated has developed from a discrete components manufacturer to a recogniSed leader in high integration analogue. The company consequently follows its path of making technology smaller, smarter, and more energy efficient, and is bringing new levels of analogue integration to automotive, cloud data center, mobile consumer, and industrial applications. Headquartered in San Jose, in the heart of Silicon Valley, Maxim Integrated is operating worldwide. Bringing technology near to its customers, the company currently entertains 29 technology centres in 14 countries and serves a worldwide customer base.