Power Electronics

Boardrooms and Courtrooms Overshadow Engineering

When you were studying in college, your EE professors probably didn't devote much time to the subject of patents. Even less likely would be the prospect of them lecturing on the world of business, and how corporate decisions and intrigues may alter the employment landscape. But as an engineer in the corporate workplace, you can quickly get a sense of how these extracurricular issues may impact your work.

Some of the business-related issues tend to linger. Last January, I found myself reflecting on the merger mania that had been sweeping the power electronics industry and on the ongoing dispute over digital power intellectual property (IP). Here we are 12 months later, and these two topics still raise concerns for the coming year.

In 2007, we saw two more notable mergers. Passive component giant Murata bought C&D Technologies, and Eltek, a supplier to the telecom industry, acquired Valere Power. There was certainly a logic to these particular mergers, in terms of bringing together vendors with complementary products.

But with regard to mergers in general, we do have to wonder whether they create or take away opportunities for engineers to work and to innovate. With regard to the latter, bigger isn't always better. As 2008 arrives, I wonder whether more big industry mergers might lie ahead and what effect they'll have on engineers.

I also wonder whether the new year will bring any more surprises in the boardrooms. Normally, I wouldn't comment on such news, but occasionally these changes can have wider implications. This could be the case with last year's departure of Alex Lidow from International Rectifier (IR).

Lidow stepped down as IR's CEO amid investigations into the company's “accounting irregularities.” Although changes in top management and even accounting problems have become commonplace in the corporate world, Lidow's resignation was significant for other reasons. Mainly, it took away the industry's most vocal advocate for energy efficiency. Lidow was as passionate in that role as he was in waving the flag for his company.

Today, power electronics is just starting to get some recognition among the general public for the role it plays in improving energy efficiency. But we still need advocates who can speak about the issues to people within the power electronics industry and to the world at large. Unfortunately, as 2008 begins, it doesn't appear that anyone is poised to step into Lidow's shoes as a power electronics industry spokesperson.

Another issue at the start of 2007 — the legal wrangling over digital power IP — finally came to a head late in the year when a jury validated the patent claims of Power-One in its lawsuit against Artesyn Technologies. Broadly speaking, the two patents upheld in this case concerned the use of digital power control system for programming, controlling and monitoring an array of point-of-load regulators using a serial data bus.

Although the jury has spoken, the saga continues with many questions remaining. As we wait for the court to finalize this verdict, there's the question of whether Emerson Network Power, which owns Artesyn, will appeal and where that might lead. If the case is ultimately settled in Power-One's favor, different scenarios could still unfold involving companies licensing IP from Power-One, or making cross-licensing deals.

Numerous suppliers may be affected by this case including those who make POL modules with a PMBus interface (none so far, because of the lawsuit!) and IC vendors who make converters or PWM controllers with a PMBus interface. And, of course, their customers stand to be affected.

Nevertheless, the PMBus Special Interest Group, which defines the PMBus protocol, recently issued a statement that “the current legal activity has not affected work on the PMBus standard,” and that it “continues to receive positive feedback and interest from end customers about the specification.”

For now, the only thing that's really clear is that what happens in the courtroom counts and can trickle down to the engineer who is seemingly far removed in the design lab.

Here's hoping that 2008 brings a conclusion to the courtroom dramas without opening doors for new ones.

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