Acquisitions and mergers, environmental regulations, energy-efficiency standards, digital control technologies and emerging applications will all be forces of change for the power electronics industry in 2007. All of these issues have affected the industry in the past year, but as time goes on, their impact is likely to multiply.
Take for example, the steamroller of industry consolidation. There were numerous acquisitions last year, some involving familiar old-line power-supply merchants: Emerson bought Artesyn Technologies, bringing them under the same roof as their former rival Astec Power; Power-One acquired Magnetek's Power Electronics Group; and Schneider Electric bought APC. Meanwhile, there were some major changes in the power semiconductor landscape: Vishay acquired International Rectifier's Power Control Systems business (which accounted for a quarter of IR's revenue); and Micro Semi bought both Advanced Power Technology and power-over-Ethernet pioneer PowerDsine.
Will more acquisitions be on the horizon in the new year? Probably, since both IC and power-supply vendors continue to face challenging business conditions, and can continue to leverage mergers to increase revenue and expand their design and manufacturing resources. It remains to be seen whether these changes will help or hurt designers. The upside is that some engineers may find new opportunities as their companies gain entry into new markets. However, industry consolidation could also accelerate the exportation of design jobs overseas.
But thinking optimistically for the moment, consider that 2007 may provide new opportunities for power electronics engineers to benefit from the rapid development of alternative energy markets. In recent years, shipments of photovoltaic cells and modules have seen double-digit growth in terms of megawatt generating capacity and revenue. Similarly, sales of wind-power equipment have been experiencing double-digit growth in generating capacity.
Since both solar and wind energy have very critical power management requirements, the growing use of these renewable sources should present exciting power design opportunities in 2007 as these applications become more mainstream. Designers also should be aware that seemingly exotic uses of alternative energy could lead to new opportunities in power electronics. See this month's Product Innovation (page 48) for information on a development in the emerging field of energy harvesting, which promises to exploit tiny energy sources to power wireless sensor networks.
Perhaps some of the alternative energy applications will also present opportunities for designers to apply the much-talked-about digital power-control techniques. Last year, digital control seemed to gain momentum as more vendors introduced controller ICs and dc-dc modules with some form of digital control. At the same time, support for the PMBus communications protocol grew even as ongoing litigation threatened to scuttle PMBus standardization efforts.
Perhaps 2007 will see a resolution of the industry disputes over digital power IP. Given the breadth and relevance of existing support for PMBus and the likelihood that more major OEMs will adopt PMBus, this protocol may finally be hailed this year as the de facto standard for communications with board-mounted power modules. Digital power-control technology may also drive further industry consolidation as mainline semiconductor and module vendors acquire startups with digital expertise.
Though digital technology looms large as a factor this year, environmental and energy-efficiency regulations threaten to have even greater impact. Many vendors will still be grappling with the RoHS directive that went into effect in Europe last July, just as they begin to face similar requirements when selling into China. As of March 1, 2007, the legislation informally known as China RoHS goes into effect. On the energy-efficiency front, new standards such as the California Energy Commission's Tier I regulations for external power supplies will finally come on-line.
As the year moves forward, we'll try to address all of these issues in the pages of this magazine, at our website www.powerelectronics.com and in our weekly newsletter PETech Times. As always, your input on these subjects is welcomed and will help us to address the most pressing technical challenges facing designers in the power electronics field.