Outlook 2024: 'Solutions based' design

4 mins read

Supporting system development with solutions-based approach and ‘twin-track’ technology flexibility.

When choosing components for their end equipment, board designers are sometimes faced with an overwhelming number of different options available either directly from semiconductor manufacturers or distributors.

Challenged with getting their product to the market quickly, they simply do not have the time to perform a full laboratory evaluation of the performance of every single component that has the specifications they need, meaning their final decision is likely based on a trade-off of cost versus supplier brand reputation.

However, choosing good components does not guarantee that they can be combined to create a good solution and many problems only become apparent once a board design has been constructed. One option to reduce the risk of this happening is to simulate a design, but this takes time and many board designers do not have access to expensive circuit simulation software.

Toshiba has recognised this pressure and is responding by moving towards ‘solutions-based’ offerings that complement its standalone products. Designers will be able to use these proven solutions, developed using components from Toshiba’s broad portfolio, to mitigate the risks of problems occurring. This will allow them to concentrate on adding innovative features and making new or existing designs more energy-efficient and sustainable without the fear of unintentionally introducing bugs.

Toshiba’s SiC Cube, a PFC reference design concept, is an excellent example of this ‘solutions-based’ approach. Developed at its high voltage lab in Dusseldorf, it will accelerate power system implementation.

This power factor correction (PFC) building block with a multi-level architecture is based on Toshiba’s third generation of SiC MOSFETs as well as Schottky barrier diodes and smart gate drivers, to support 22kW 3-phase operation. Having such closely matched constituent components means it delivers a PFC reference design platform on which highly effective power systems can be developed.

Containing power switching bridge-leg boards, plus inductor and capacitor boards, connected to a TMPM4K microcontroller board, its 3D modular stacking arrangement enables significant footprint savings and delivers high power density.

‘Twin-track’ technology

Semiconductor manufacturers are constantly innovating and striving to introduce new products based on emerging technologies. While this opens up exciting new possibilities for the future, they sometimes lose sight of the fact that, while planning for the future, their customers are still struggling to solve today’s problems.

Wide bandgap semiconductors are a case in point – for, while it’s true that they open new horizons for previously unattainable levels of efficiency in high-speed and high-voltage switching, SiC and GaN-based products have a significant cost premium attached, one which many equipment manufacturers cannot afford.

Furthermore, the widespread availability of these products is a relatively recent phenomenon and many board designers are fearful of ‘breaking’ proven designs to exploit what might only be marginal benefits enabled by these technologies, depending on the application. Simply stated, not every equipment manufacturer wants, needs or can afford to switch to wide bandgap semiconductors at this point in time.

Toshiba has recognised this and has adopted a ‘twin track’ approach to technology provision. Working with its customers to identify high-power MOS or IGBT alternatives that can serve their purpose today, Toshiba is taking the time to educate and support its customers on how to make the switch to wide bandgap devices at the most appropriate time for them.

Isolation of high-voltage digital signals in industrial applications is another application where two distinct technologies serve a similar purpose. Here, Toshiba is renowned for providing market-leading optical-based photocouplers in dedicated packaging technology to offer properties like high reliability insulation and excellent electromagnetic compatibility (EMC). On the other hand, Toshiba recently introduced a range of high-speed multi-channel magnetic-based digital isolators, which offer better common-mode transient immunity for newer high-voltage switching applications, another example of the company’s ‘twin-track’ technology approach.

In the automotive sector, its new e-fuses are supporting OEMs in their transition to a zonal architecture, but Toshiba also continues to support customers that opt for using traditional mechanical relays.

Device packaging is another area where innovations that solve one problem might yet create another. Undeniably, new packages can help to address technology challenges, but they can make it difficult for customers to identify suitable ‘second source’ suppliers.

Some semiconductor companies are effectively abandoning their customers by obsoleting products for which there remains a latent market demand and Toshiba is aiming to fill that void by identifying and responding to the needs of those companies - its recently introduced range of brushed DC and stepper motor drivers demonstrate this point.

Prototyping support

When developing complex new systems customers increasingly want to be able to study multiple different topologies and model alternative implementations before committing to a new project. Toshiba wants to support them in these efforts and is collaborating with other industrial and academic partners to build system prototypes that customers can use to evaluate how a chain of components will work together. For example, Toshiba has an ongoing collaboration with MikroElektronika (MIKROE) to produce evaluation boards for motor applications - the most recent being the MIKROE Clicker 4 development board for Toshiba’s M4K motor control MCU family combined with the Clicker 4 Inverter Shield.

This is a simple-to-use and cost-effective solution for experimenting with BLDC motor control scenarios. It includes an on-board debugger and has four sockets for connecting a wide range of different MIKROE Click boards, enabling the addition of further functions to be added.

Toshiba’s recently introduced MCU Motor Studio, that brings together PC-based design tools, microcontroller firmware, and low-cost evaluation hardware to accelerate time to market for motor-control applications hosted on Toshiba’s TXZ+4A microcontrollers (MCUs). It includes a firmware suite that supports all common energy-efficient motor control strategies including sinewave commutation and field-oriented (vector) control (FOC), sensorless or with precise-position sensing.

Moving beyond hardware, Toshiba is looking to push the boundaries of what it can offer as a semiconductor company to demonstrate its capabilities by investigating the feasibility of developing digital twins for complete hardware systems.

Complementary technologies

The pace of technology innovation is now so fast that designers who have just become comfortable with exploiting the benefits of one technology are suddenly presented with a new ‘even better’ technology that they feel pressured to use. This makes it difficult for them to know which technology they should be using and when and instead of making their lives simpler, it becomes more confusing.

Toshiba is acutely aware of the difficulties that the pace of innovation is creating for ‘real-world’ engineers and is addressing it in two ways – firstly by ensuring that it continues to offer complementary technologies for engineers who do not have the resources to make the transition from legacy technology to a new one and secondly, by ensuring it provides the hardware and software tools designers need to understand the benefits of new technologies so that they have complete confidence in their decision when the time comes for them to make the transition.

Author details: Armin Derpmanns, VP Marketing & Operations Division, Toshiba Electronics Europe