Power Trends: The art of power – Artesyn Embedded Technologies
“The biggest change in power over the last five years is probably the attention that people pay to energy efficiency. That’s given the power industry back some respect that it didn’t have some time ago,” said Conor Quinn, director of technical marketing at Artesyn Embedded Technologies. The company is one of the largest power supply companies in the world, consistently ranked in the top three in revenue with a long legacy, through ASTEC and the acquisition of the Motorola Computer Group and Force Computers.
The AC-DC product portfolio covers a power range of 3 W to 24 kW and includes open-frame and enclosed models, highly configurable modular power supplies, rack-mounting bulk front end units, DIN rail power supplies, external power adapters and power supplies for LED lighting. The isolated DC-DC converters cover sixteenth- to full-brick form factors and power ratings from 6 to 800W and three application-optimized families of non-isolated DC-DC converters. Headquartered in Tempe, Arizona, Artesyn has over 20,000 employees worldwide across ten engineering centres and four factories.
“There’s always the perception that power is the last thing that people think about but nowadays there’s more talk of power at the system level and a lot of that is driven by energy efficiency and standards to meet government regulations,” said Quinn. “That is the biggest change that has happened and continues to happen, starting at computer and moving through into the other spaces.”
This is a big change that impacts on the design teams and product specifications, he says. “It has changed the makeup of the design teams – there’s a lot more digital expertise. We have been shipping digitally controlled products for over ten years as one of the early movers in this space. Early on the digital assisted the analogue, then it was replacing the analogue functions and now the vast majority above a certain threshold are fully digitally controlled. We are pushing the power levels that use digital control down to 200 to 250W – ten years ago the products were in the high hundreds and above.”
The cost of digital control is still an issue, which is why the move started at the higher power levels. “The challenge with digital control is that customers are not going to pay for it. Early on when we started digital controllers they had to be integrated to reduce part counts or added value – there’s always a cost performance balance and in the early days you could do that at higher power levels.”
The challenge is that the cost of digital control is a larger percentage of the Bill of Materials so designers are always looking for components that are more suited to a particular design, he says.
“Across the industry in general you see microcontrollers, DSPs and hybrid parts, but it’s the pin count and performance that are the key performance metrics. It’s also topology dependent – a two stage or three stage topology has two or three DSPs involved, so with a high power three stage topology you have multiple controllers, but when you go to lower power you can look at different topologies and digital control with a single controller, reducing the cost.”
This is where the relationship with the semiconductor vendor is essential. “You can get by with a lower pin count controller, that’s really the enabler from 100W to 200W just going to one microcontroller may not be sufficient,” he said. “The suppliers today are doing a very good job on reducing the cost through choosing the right features – we help guide their roadmaps so we continue down that path,” he said.
The recent acquisition of Linear Technology by Analog Devices has brought the consolidation in the semiconductor industry to the fore.
“We obviously keep a close eye on the consolidation in the industry and we have a strong relationship with the major suppliers. We understand the industry is continually changing and we have to keep an eye on that and adapt accordingly,” he said. “Our experience is that it hasn’t typically been a problem for them – we develop and manage our supply base to be reasonably stable and even with acquisitions we haven’t seen any problems that you wouldn’t see with end of life over time, for example. For the most part larger companies deal with larger suppliers and that helps with stability. We do work with smaller companies and they do get acquired by larger companies and you have to evaluate the technology on its own merits, that’s part of managing the risks,” he said.
Artesyn covers a broad range of markets for power, from storage and computer systems to industrial and medical. “They all have their own challenges,” said Quinn. “Inside the company a lot of the technology tends to start in the computing space – there’s volume there and the power levels support the technologies that we are trying to develop, and the technology has to help improve the product. The computing sector has tended to drive a lot of the technology development – most of the digital control was initially driven by computing, for example, and now it’s the server industry through the data centre driving innovation.”
“All of our product today has a communications interface, which is typically a serial bus using PMbus or similar and that ties in with the higher level needs to manage the energy usage in the serverand at the data centre level. Software defined Power is somewhat of a buzz word but for the power supply industry itself what’s important is having the supplies that can interface with the control and management software and that goes beyond the supply itself – it can shut down on command but be ready to come on instantly to pick up the load
“As you move from a more embedded power supply to a higher level power system you are adding layers of firmware and software but that need is driven by the end system – we are moving into system level solutions and we are doing more of that.
The industrial market then picks up the technology that was developed for higher volume applications, he says. “It tends to be more fragmented so the pace of innovation is probably a little slower but we’ve also had digital control and digital interfaces on AC/DC products for ten years at the same time as computing and storage,” he said. “There’s a lot of digital content in the iMP (Intelligent Medium Power) and uMP (microMP) so the products are highly configurable and that digital interface allows customers to configure the products before they put them into the system and also on the fly.
The success of the Internet of Things (IoT) will be with very specific solutions, he says. “IoT is like Software Defined Power in that it is a lot of different things to a lot of different people – we are continually looking at it to see how we play,” he said. “You have to make sure it can interface with the network, and all of this data has to be consolidated and run through a router or switch and we already power those types of products, but then there’s the billions of smart nodes and sensors and those are likely to be lower power.
There also opportunities in 3D printers, 3D imaging and that’s a very different type of product in dirty environments with electronics, motors and heaters, different voltage rails, he says. “There’s plenty of opportunity for innovation there.”
But for the most part the industry is not traditionally a revolutionary one, for the most part its evolutionary. “The step changes are driven by the semiconductor side of the industry such as MOSFETs so in power supplies we are constantly looking that balance of features, performance and cost,” he said.