OUTLOOK 2017: Innovation fuels analogue developments

4 mins read

Despite all the attention given to the digital domain, we live in an analogue world. And it’s one of the reasons – maybe the main reason – why there is said to be more than $1 worth of analogue devices on a board for every $1 of digital.

Yet challenges remain as engineers look to design in analogue components, particularly if they aren’t as familiar with the technology as they might like.

Tony Stratakos, chief technology officer with Maxim Integrated, said: “There is a fundamental trade off between power, size, accuracy and speed. The best designers know their applications well and trade these factors off when optimising their designs.”

Bryan Liddiard, vp analogue marketing and marketing communications with Microchip, has a similar view. “The challenges change depending on the engineer’s experience. For less experienced engineers, having analogue products that are ‘digitally friendly’ is a benefit. More experienced analogue designers are looking for solutions that meet or beat the critical performance parameters.”

Steve Anderson, senior vice president, analogue, with Texas Instruments, noted: “Performance, power consumption, cost, and size are all trade-offs engineers consider when designing with analogue signal chain and power management functions in their systems. Which requirement is most important can vary based on the end application. In some cases, an engineer will select high performance to drive greater system efficiency, while high precision current sensing devices can increase motor efficiency in factories.”

As digital technology is driven by Moore’s Law to the leading edge, analogue technology is following, but more slowly. Is this helping engineers to solve more problems than in the recent past?

Alison Steer, mixed signal product marketing manager with Linear Technology, noted: “Recently, Linear has released SAR A/D converters which integrate high dynamic range filtering; something that would have been performed by an FPGA or in a traditional delta-sigma A/D converter, which has flexibility and performance limitations. Having digital filters inside the converter unburdens the host processor and frees bandwidth for other tasks.

“Filtering trades output data rate for dynamic range, so more filtering results in a slow, but very low noise data stream which saves power and allows slower, cheaper processors to be used.”

Anderson said there was a time, not too long ago, when the demise of analogue was predicted. “What we see today is that analogue innovation is required more than ever to help realise the full benefits of digital advancements.”

Liddiard, however, thought this was not an ‘apples to apples’ comparison. “There isn’t a ‘balance’ between analogue and digital. The real world – sound, pressure, temperature – is analogue and engineers use digital to process and act on the information gathered by analogue components and then to output to analogue circuits. So both are required in relative proportion.”

“Nearly all markets are seeing the same three trends: smaller size; more intelligent processing at the edge; and reduced operating expenses.”

Neil Tyler

So how are the requirements of those designing with mixed signal and analogue devices likely to change in the next few years?

Steer noted: “More than power consumption or cost, the biggest challenge has become space. This is a problem that not only applies to the consumer market, but you can easily see this becoming increasingly important in many other markets.

“There is also a fine balance between integration and flexibility; the more integration, the less flexible the part will be across multiple applications. But the biggest challenge which Linear wants to help to solve is solution size – and that is one reason for the popularity of the µModule concept.”

Microchip’s Liddiard pointed out that most of the engineers the company engages with are interested in higher accuracy and lower power. “Microchip’s analogue technologies lead these categories in many devices and the company continues to improve both in new products.”

Stratakos added that he saw many drivers that demand more efficient power management, including to improve battery life in wearables, reduce electricity costs in data centres and reduce heating in factory automation. “The growing need to measure our physical world will require accurate and low power analogue sensors that are deployed widely.”

With analogue technologies used in applications ranging from wearables to factory automation, how do the various market needs differ – and which markets provide the toughest challenges?

Venu Menon, vice president, analogue technology development, with Texas Instruments, said: “Each market sector presents varying degrees of challenges related to high bandwidth or high precision, reliability, standards compliance or speed of the design cycle. Power or energy efficiency is a common challenge through almost all of them. TI views these technical challenges as opportunities to innovate and differentiate.”

Stratakos: “Nearly all markets are seeing the same three trends: smaller size; more intelligent processing at the edge; and reduced operating expenses and carbon footprint. Power management continues to be a cornerstone for all of them.

“Smaller size puts pressure on power dissipation, while the need for intelligent edge processing means low power analogue signal processing is key. And more intelligent electronics opens the door to reduced operational expenditures and boosts performance per Watt.”

Steer contends that all sectors have their own application requirements. “But there are similarities in the level of quality and support expected. Industrial and medical apps have long product cycles and tend to reuse designs to reduce risk, so this needs a commitment to non-obsolescence. Automotive, meanwhile, needs proven products with low failure rates and high reliability, making it one of the most challenging.”

How do analogue companies handle these challenges? Is integration a higher priority or is taking advantage of process technology more important?

According to TI’s Menon, the company is following both directions. “Signal chain products, such as microcontrollers, amplifiers and high speed data converters, are integrating significant amounts of digital along with analogue. High-power products have a tougher challenge because high-voltage transistors do not scale easily with smaller lithography nodes.

“We see opportunities to innovate in power and high voltage, precision amplifiers and data converters, high speed products, sensors and many others. These opportunities involve varying levels of integration, but depending on the end application, it’s likely there will always be a need for certain devices that are completely optimised for the highest analogue performance.”

Liddiard noted that, in many cases, monolithic integration of differing analogue technologies is neither practical nor cost effective. “We make the determination of monolithic versus multidie in a package based on the best return on investment. We use stable, long running processes for our analogue products, whether fabricated internally or externally.”

Linear’s Steer sees it as more of a balance. “It’s a bit of both,” she said. “Process technology is part of the path to achieving higher integration and performance, which ultimately helps to fit products into smaller packages. Packaging, meanwhile, is a Linear strength; for example, allowing µModule products to fit beneath FPGA heatsinks.”

Deeper submicron technologies are attractive to Maxim, said Stratakos. “We are moving much of our power management portfolio to an advanced process technology on 300mm wafers,” he said.

Concluding, Anderson said: “Electronics is continuously evolving and being a leading analogue supplier requires us to develop innovative solutions that solve the customer’s challenges. This requires talented engineers who can understand customers’ systems and anticipate and design optimised products.”