Power Electronics

Are There Too Many Power Management ICs?

by Lou Pechi, President, STRATA-Strategic Advisors, San Diego

Over the holidays, I cleared some of my files and came across the "Power Management IC Wallchart 2007" published last year in the Power Electronics Technology publication. The chart listed about 37 different management ICs with only five in the digital control category. The devices are sorted into two basic categories: 1) power management ICs and 2) power ICs, defined as power management ICs with incorporated FET drivers capable of providing more than 1 A of output current.

I was impressed with the sheer number of different dedicated devices that our industry uses for handling just voltages and currents. Previously, we only had two types of power management ICs: linear, which allowed the gradual increase and decrease of the current flow, and switchers, which turned the flow quickly on and off.

Not only has the distinction between these two categories became blurred, the actual functions themselves multiplied as IC manufacturers found power management niches where ICs could readily integrate the different discrete combinations of linear and digital devices into functionally dedicated ICs. In other words, they developed devices that met the needs of many individual applications in a cost-effective and competitive way.

By pursuing the same goal of cost effectiveness, IC manufacturers will find methods to reduce this multiplicity of power management ICs into single universal ICs capable of performing many different functions. They will do it to expand the market to serve many other applications with a reduced number of devices.

This is already happening with low-current power regulators where the various discrete functions are being incorporated into devices that, besides regulating the voltage and current output, provide many other functions. Some of these recently introduced regulators can be programmed using GUI software to not only provide multiple levels of output voltages or current from a single model, but also to modify their behavior by changing the loop gain performance.

As digital circuitry makes inroads into analog designs, the functions of each device with the incorporated digital intelligence and programming capability, will be capable of being modified by simple software programming changes. As an example from the present chart, the two listed categories of voltage-mode and current-mode controller designs could perform both buck and boost functions and both single and multiphase operation in one regulator, thus reducing the number of different models. Battery management devices could also be combined into one device, with the nuances and functions modified by software changes only.

Compare this to a typical PC, where a single unit performs communications, word processing, sound, picture handling, and a myriad of other functions with just software programming and no need for physical component changes. Can you envision such a power management IC that can fulfill multiple functions with just software changes? I can.

I think that a future chart — if there will even be a need for one — will carry the title “Programmable Power Management ICs “and will contain a much smaller number of distinct categories. Of course, it’s possible that the manufacturers will keep offering all the old devices just as they do now with ancient parts such as germanium transistors. In that case, the chart will grow even larger.

But should we really keep the old devices in the chart forever?

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