Design Con 2015

Industry alliances and standard supplies – are they still a good thing?

-February 03, 2014

Of course, the simple answer to such a question is “it depends on how they are being applied”. But the longer answer highlights forces that are driving changes within the power industry. So, let me begin another way…


Hands up if you recognize the following marketing department request: “For this next project we need twice (or more) the processing power. And we need it in the same space (smaller if you can).  And we need it for the same bill of material cost.”


 

Gordon Moore’s original “Moore’s Law” graph (Courtesy of Intel)


Semiconductor companies have been able to stay ahead of these market demands thanks to advances in manufacturing that have allowed for greater densities of processing power. But, that comes at the cost of needing more power for that chip.


The power industry on other hand has not been able to stay on par with the rapid rise in processing performance.  To complicate matters for power supply companies, the expectation is that board mount power supplies will keep up with new levels of performance at the commoditized price levels of the past, even though the demand for faster access… to larger amounts of data… via a reliable and secure infrastructure accelerates.  I’ll avoid dwelling on the fact that some of the chips used in networking equipment cost upwards of $1000, yet the focus on the modules powering these devices is still on cost.


Alliances and standards


Previous to the newest generations of semiconductors, the industry as a whole set an expectation and a roadmap methodology that they would design better products, cheaper—and that power should be considered a commodity with industry standard devices being developed by a multitude of companies.


Obviously, nothing’s universal and there are several definitions of what makes a standard but in general, an industry standard device should be pin-for-pin compatible with multiple vendors (at least 5) developing and manufacturing them independently. Quality, reliability, operating temperature and safety features can, of course vary.


In the power supply industry, alliances have also been formed to drive compatibility across numerous isolated and non-isolated form factors.  The Distributed-Power Open Standards Alliance (DOSA), which CUI is a member of, is one such example. In many cases, alliances such as DOSA or the once competing POLA (Point of Load Alliance) do deliver value to OEM customers by reducing supply chain risk, reducing design time and driving costs down through an agreed upon multi-source specification. DOSA focuses on the mechanical aspects, while POLA went down to the schematic level. When the necessity is to simply convert one voltage to another under fairly lenient performance restrictions, these alliances have proven to be quite effective.


A recent report from Micro-Tech Consultants on the off the shelf power market lists approximately 10 to 17% of ac-dc switching power supplies and 30-45% of dc-dc converters being industry-standard products – with the caveat… depending on definition of “standard”.


Today’s Need


But as the 1964 song by Bob Dylan says, “The Times They Are A-Changin’”...the performance requirements for a range of advanced ICs have skyrocketed. And, as I’ve already highlighted, the power supplies have not kept pace, so the opportunity for engineers to “cut and paste” existing power designs – keeping costs / design time down - is no longer a viable solution for many new applications.


Innovation in power supply design is critical to meet requirements that are pushing 75A+ per rail.  A design of this nature is not trivial, and requires companies to embrace the idea of bringing value back to the power supply. In many cases, standardized power supplies which are constrained by a particular footprint and a “one design fits all” design approach simply cannot meet these expectations.


The cost of innovating


Innovation is associated with the dirtiest of four letter words, “cost”. If you spend money on innovation, it will cost more. In reality it is exactly the opposite. The value, or total cost of the solution, should actually be lower when a complete analysis is done.


I started the blog post with marketing departments demands – more, in a smaller space, for less money - so I’ll use an example of how we’re trying to solve this using our new Solus® SEPIC-fed buck Power Topology – and one of my favorite stories from car manufacturing. First the topology.


One of the big advantages of using a SEPIC-fed buck topology is in its transient response. This is a problem that many designs solve currently solve by laying out a dump truck worth of capacitors on the output of the POL module. These caps are expensive and occupy precious board real estate, space that next generation designs simply do not have.  So, a standardized module may appear to cost less, but this is before space and the cost of external components are factored in.  With our SEPIC-fed buck topology, more power can be delivered in the same space at a lower total solution cost.


But, staying with the 60s theme, we’ve also taken an idea from the iconic small car from the 60s, the Mini. I use this as its designer - Alec Issigonis – also was forced to deliver a certain power into a smaller space – and the way he did it was to turn the engine.


Going back to the power supply world, the mantra, “we want more in the same space” usually refers to the X & Y axis of the board. However, in many designs the Z axis of the design has room that is not being utilized. We’ve therefore taken Issigonis’s idea and made our POL design with Solus Topology in way that allows for both a vertical and a horizontal orientation from the same design.  In this instance, innovation in packaging forced us to move away from an industry standard footprint to bring maximum value to our customer.


Industry alliances and standard supplies – are they still a good thing?


So, back to my original question, industry alliances and standard supplies – are they still a good thing?


Not all designs need groundbreaking performance from their power modules. Simple power conversion via commodity-type power supplies can fill numerous needs and make perfect sense for many designs.


But, as the performance requirements for advanced ICs have skyrocketed, the “one size fits all” mentality is no longer realistic for these applications. Growing sophistication in systems means there will be an increasing number of sockets in each design that push the limits of the existing power supplies – and commodity modules will not support this. 


So, once again, the answer is … “It depends.”


Be sure to visit our booth (1233) at the Applied Power Electronics Conference (APEC) in Fort Worth, TX from March 16-20 to learn more about our solutions to the power challenges of next-generation networking applications, including the latest high density modules based on CUI’s Solus Power Topology.


For more information visit www.cui.com.

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