Executive Interview: Channelling higher power into smaller packages

Interviews |
By eeNews Europe

eeNews Europe: What do you think will be the three major technology trends of 2014 and how will they impact Vicor? Where is your sales growth going to come from in Europe?

Davies: The first one that stands out is high voltage DC distribution, which we feel will gain significant traction over the next three to five years. Large Datacom and Datacentre companies are seeing major advantages with HVDC distribution. Additionally, we are seeing companies in the industrial sector showing serious interest in this technology. The nice thing for us is that our proprietary Sine Amplitude Converter (SAC) technology used in our Bus Converter Modules gives us a really big advantage in this market from the viewpoint of density and efficiency. We’ve just launched the first Bus Converter Module using our new ChiP packaging technology, which is rated at 1.2 kW in a very small package (63 x 23 x 7 mm). Vicor will also soon be launching higher power versions in the same small package size, which is testament to the SAC capability.

Next up would be 54/48 V being used as the hub in datacentres.  We are seeing a great deal of interest in this as a way of eliminating the UPS, with its associated power losses, costs and complexity are also reduced and reliability is increased. The backup batteries would simply be fed into the 48 V node. Also, with Vicor’s Factorized Power Architecture utilizing PRM and VTM chipsets, the ability to go from 48 V direct to the point of load is a very attractive proposition in terms of efficiency and density given the trend towards lower and lower voltages with microprocessors and DDR memory

Thirdly, the automotive industry is now looking seriously at 48 V distribution in hybrid applications.  And another high voltage application is of course in pure electric cars where conversion and regulation of the high voltage (400 V) from the large lithium battery stack down to the 12 V necessary to power the vehicle electronics and charging of the conventional 12 V battery.  

Our ability to offer the products that help support and drive these trends is made possible due to the company’s long-term focus on high voltage, high ratio conversion architectures and efficient high density products.

eeNews Europe: In which power management technologies do you see Vicor providing a leadership position?

Davies: Our core competence of converting and regulating higher voltages will remain a leadership position for us. Whether it’s going from 380 V to 48 V, 380 V to 12 V or 48 V to 1 V, our sine amplitude converter engine, our zero voltage and zero current switching topologies and Factorized Power architecture, Vicor continues to lead the industry in terms of power density and efficiency.

eeNews Europe: What do you see as the major challenge facing traditional power converters in terms of conversion efficiency?   How is Vicor aiming to meet this conversion efficiency challenge?

Davies: Our SAC engine is a resonant technology able to run at high frequency with low EMI problems due to its soft switching characteristics.  This enables us to meet the challenge of achieving high efficiency in a small, high density package due to the smaller values of inductors and capacitors required. Over the next three to five years we’ll be increasing the switching frequency of these devices from the current 2 MHz. We are constantly reducing the power losses; even with a 98% efficiency the 2% loss can produce a significant amount of heat in a package running at over a kilowatt.

We are continuing to invest heavily in R&D and are constantly analysing where we can reduce power losses and improving what is a relatively new technology. It’s not like trying to squeeze another fraction of a percentage point out of an old technology. We have plenty of headroom with our proprietary engines, topologies and architectures and are developing better component parts to help us meet this challenge.

eeNews Europe: What practical design resources are available from Vicor to European designers?

Davies: We are investing heavily in Field Application Engineers (FAE) support for European customers and in building up our three fully-equipped European technical support centres (TSCs) in the UK, Germany and Italy. We have also put in place a FAE certification programme and train FAEs from our distribution and representative partners to be fully conversant with our power conversion topologies and broad range of products. In addition, we are expanding our own FAE staff and run intensive training sessions and regular webinars to keep all our FAEs fully up to date.  This represents a significant investment, one that our customers in Europe can benefit greatly from.

We constantly strive to equip our FAEs and customers with the best tools to select the right products and also to simulate their designs. To this end we introduced the web-based PowerBench suite, which now has a new tool called the ‘Whiteboard’.  This enables engineers to build their power system designs online using any of the power modules and components available from Vicor and then to carry out an analysis of the system efficiency and thermal performance. From this analysis the engineer can go deeper and investigate the performance of the individual power blocks that make up the system. We are continuing to invest heavily in our tool portfolio and are updating in real time as we introduce new products to help simplify and speed-up the design process for our FAEs, and therefore our customers.

eeNews Europe: Vicor operates no manufacturing sites in Europe? Is this likely to change? If not, why not?
Davies: Where change could occur is in the custom power systems area. We have just announced the addition of a new subsidiary in Europe, Vicor Custom Europe.  Headed up by a very talented Vicor engineer who has returned to his home in Poland, he will work with the European TSCs to support and drive the custom power design business in Europe. Initially manufacturing will continue in the U.S. but as business ramps up, we will consider manufacturing in Poland.

eeNews Europe: There is an increase in DC power feeding datacentres from renewable energy sources.  What impact do you see this technology having on power conversion demands?

Davies: Again, this falls into the remit of high voltage DC power distribution. Datacentre and Datacom companies are using solar and wind power as an auxiliary power source for peak demand or load balancing, and all these systems interface directly with our 380 V technology. Interestingly, we are conducting webinars on our HV technology and have been joined by Hewlett Packard, Emerson, Starline DC Solutions and the Fraunhofer institute, which shows the level of industry interest in HVDC.

eeNews Europe: With high voltage DC (HVDC) in mind what factors do you think will be critical to simplifying the DC distribution power chain?  

Davies: Really, it’s the ability to eliminate the many conversion steps we have seen in the past. For example, with Vicor products it’s a simple step to go from 380 V to 48 V and from 48 V straight down to the point of load of around 1 V. Why would anyone still want to have an intermediate conversion when you can go direct?

eeNews Europe: What other power conversion trends do you feel will emerge in the near future?
Davies: An area we are considering is how to improve the three phase and single phase AC and DC front end silver boxes. We have some interesting technology in this area. We see there is an industry need to drastically reduce the size and increase the efficiency of front end systems and are looking to our technology and expertise to provide the solution.

eeNews Europe: LED lighting applications often require compact and efficient power supplies with simplified thermal management.  Is Vicor likely to focus more attention in this sector in future?

Davies: An interesting area, the power supplies on offer are many and diverse in terms of size and performance. We will probably wait a little to see how the industry matures and feel that our highly efficient Picor ZVS devices, along with our ability to step down from 48 V directly to LED voltage, could play a major part as LED drivers in this emerging business.

eeNews Europe: How do you see increasing power density and thermal management demands impacting the future development of process and packaging technologies?

Davies: We have invested heavily in packaging. To achieve the power densities that we have, there has been an incredible amount of work and R&D in packaging. As an example, we developed the new ChiP package, which enables heat to be extracted from both the top and bottom of the device. This increases the flexibility in thermal management and enables the high power densities that we are able to deliver to our customers. We expect to be making more announcements later this year on the detail of another new advanced packaging capability.

Philip Davies has been Corporate Vice President, Global Sales and Marketing of Vicor Corporation since February 2011.


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