Power Electronics

Power Design: A Game Played Across Many Fields

In any given year, the most successful baseball team (at any level) isn't necessarily the one that hits the most home runs or whose pitchers have the lowest combined earned run average. Similar statements can be made about other markers of individual and team performance, like hits made, runs scored, runs allowed and errors committed. Winning isn't the result of optimizing one aspect of the game but being good — or at least good enough — in all areas.

Does that idea sound familiar? Probably so, since much of engineering is about achieving the right balance of performance among many, often conflicting, goals. As in baseball, “winning” in engineering terms is about being good — or good enough — in many areas so that a particular design meets all of a customer's requirements. Though these concepts are true in most areas of electrical engineering, you could argue that the baseball analogy particularly suits the endeavor of power supply design.

After all, baseball requires a wide assortment of skills (pitching, hitting, running, fielding) and employs a blend of players with varying abilities in each of these areas. Similarly, power supply design requires a diverse blend of technologies and skills as Dhaval Dalal observes in this month's Executive Viewpoint, “The Inevitable Direction of the Power Conversion Industry,” which appears on page 76.

Dalal comments, “The power supply field is unique in that it is truly multidisciplinary. No other “specialized” engineering field requires expertise in so many areas (analog circuits, magnetics, control theory, packaging, thermal management, device physics, etc.).” In noting this diversity, Dalal concludes that “with so many disciplines, it is more difficult to envision breakthrough technology impacting the [power supply] field” in a way that may occur in other fields.

Dalal's statements are made within a discussion of why the power supply marketplace encompasses such a wide spectrum of high-tech and low-tech power supply solutions.

However, the multidisciplinary nature of power supply design has other implications as well. One such implication may be that advances are needed in all the technological areas affecting power supply design and not just a select few.

Typically, we hear a lot about developments in the semiconductor area. Power supply ICs continue to become more functionally rich, blending more power and control elements. Meanwhile, discrete semiconductors continue to move ahead with advances in process technology and packaging. However, the pace of development in other areas, like magnetics, passive components, thermal management devices and interconnects, seems to be much slower.

I was reminded of this recently when I picked up a sample of a new high-density dc-dc converter. Although the ICs, MOSFETs and passives on this converter were all quite small, one side of the pc board was still dominated by a few inductors that seemed absolutely huge in comparison with the other components.

Obviously, magnetic components are subject to the laws of physics, with size related closely to switching frequency, making it harder to shrink these components. But, could it also be true that the industry needs to devote more resources to magnetic component research and development?

In general, similar questions could be raised about the other nonsemiconductor technologies employed in power supply design. Is the industry doing enough to advance the state of the art in passive components, interconnects and thermal management devices? Or, is it that advanced technologies are already available in all these areas, but they're underused, either because of cost constraints or because of a lack of awareness or understanding of their potential?

Although semiconductor technology will no doubt be vital to pushing power supply performance to new heights, progress for power supply technology as a whole will be hampered without progress in other technology areas. As the summer rolls on, perhaps baseball can serve as a reminder that an endeavor as diverse as power supply design needs always to be treated as a “technological” team sport.

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