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The fascinating world of the power supply industry

Technology News |
By Julien Happich

This perception is amplified by a general feeling that the power supply industry reached such a level of maturity that nothing new could really happen, which in fact is not the case. Despite the steady top number, the C-SMPS industry is extremely dynamic, adjusting to market changes, new regulations, emerging new technologies and in permanent transformation, developing products and power solutions for new technologies in their early stage such as 5G and Industry 4.0.

 

Segments transformation

It would not be possible to go into details for every segment but there is one, which has had a major influence to all other, the Telecom/Datacom segment. For decades, the Telecommunication segment has been predominant and one of the main technology driver for innovations within the power industry. We all remember the evolution in power distribution, moving from centralized-power to de-centralized power, which has been then adopted by other industries, becoming the worldwide power-architecture in all segments from Industrial to Defence. The same was true for the introduction of digital power technology, which is now used in many products operated in non-telecom segment.

All those technology evolutions have been driven by the need to make telecom equipment more energy efficient, to reduce energy consumption and carbon footprint. Integrating what used to be a central telecom office down to a chipset has had a big impact on the volume of power modules consumed by this industry but as well on how the power is distributed and optimized. At the peak days of 2000, the worldwide production of 5 to 20W board mounted DC/DC converters for the telecom industry was close to the 35 million units. For 2017, the estimates for a similar category of products going in the telecom industry are under 6 million units. We all know that the telecom market has reached a certain level of saturation but they are other reasons explaining this impressive decline in volume: a higher level of integration and an increase use of discrete solutions.


Higher level of integration

Telecom-switch footprint for connecting
10 000 subscribers 1980 – 2020 (Source: Powerbox).

Migrating from voice to data, the telecom industry rapidly reached a point of integration with the datacom industry to become the Information, Communication and Technology (ICT). At that point, both industries boosted the development of new signal processors and other complex data-management ASICs requiring higher power DC/DC converters (e.g. Intermediate Bus Converters) with localized step down conversion achieved by Point-of-Load (POL). Within a few years, radio base stations became smaller and smaller, backbone access shrunk to a box size and the data centres became the heart of the ICT industry. This higher level of digitalization impacted the low power DC/DC conversion market but also contributed to the development of higher power density bricks, up to the 1KW quarter brick.

Increase of discrete solution

Considered by many as Nessie, the Loch Ness Monster, the transition from low power DC/DC power modules to discrete solution is a reality and, with the miniaturization of telecom equipment and higher level of integration a building practice that is now well established. This transition has been facilitated by the semiconductor manufacturers that developed-design support to a very advanced point, simplifying the implementation of low and mid power at board level and the development of highly integrated POL.

Despite a number of market studies highlighting the growing volume of PWMs, it is not easy to quantify the transition volume from conventional board mounted DC/DC converters in the telecommunication segment: roughly 65% of the low/mid power conversion function is now achieved by discrete solutions, compared to only 15% 10 years ago.

Combining the lower market demand for conventional telecom equipment, the higher integration and the transition to discrete solutions, the market for low and mid power DC/DC converters has collapsed. But at the top level, this has been compensated by the increase of higher power and other growing segments such as medical.


Growing areas full of innovations

It is obvious that radio base stations are getting smaller and, despite the expected number of 5G transmitters required by that new technology, the volume of low and medium power board mounted devices will never recover where they used to be during the peak days. That illustrates the impact of technology shift and challenges for power supplies manufacturers to always be ready for the next wave of innovations.

With the booming of Internet, increased data traffic that requires more powerful data centres also call for more processors and more power supplies. Because of the extremely high level of integration, certain boards will soon require more than 3KW per board, which is not only a challenge to power but also to cool.

Powering efficiently servers and other IP mass traffic routers requires power designers to innovate in advanced topologies, using new components such as Gallium Nitride or inventing efficient solutions to convert the 400VDC distribution voltage to the 1VDC required by some microprocessors. In the data centre power community, the new motto is 400 to 1 at 99, understanding 400VDC input, 1VDC output at a 99% conversion ratio. For sure, that is a bit challenging but as we say in the power community: “Limits are made to be broken”, and the power pioneers to which I belong all remember the many times we have been challenged to break unbreakable limits!

 

1 and 0 are driving the game

There is another area where technology innovation contributed to boost power, efficiency and flexibility, which is the so called “Digital Power.” Considered as anecdotic when presented first, the digital power technology originally developed for ICT and high density data centres made its way through others industries, becoming the preferred platform by power designers when addressing new challenges.

Rolls-Royce oX Land-based control-centre
supervising unmanned ships (source: Rolls-Royce)

From a simple monitoring function to very advanced switching control, the number of power supplies using that technology has grown exponentially and is even used in very advanced medical equipment such as Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) where digital power combined with coreless technology makes efficient power conversion possible in extreme condition (e.g. high magnetic field of 4 Tesla). Highly debated for almost a decade, the integration of a digital chain within power supplies opened a new range of applications that were unthinkable only few years ago.

Powerbox GB350 digitally controlled power
supply for demanding applications operated under
a high electromagnetic field.
(Source: iStock.com/baranozdemir – Powerbox)
 

From the Internet of Things to unmanned ships crossing the oceans, future power supplies will not be as they are today and power engineers are already working on intelligent power architectures that will be able to self-control their mode of operation.


Power for the healthcare industry

From 1.2 billion USD in 2016, the global market for medical power supplies is expected to expand at a CAGR of 4.5% from 2017 to 2022. This growth results from a global population that is both living longer and experiencing an increasing rate of chronic disease. Economic factors are pushing for an increase of the proportion of at-home healthcare.

Beside conventional equipment for hospital and medicalized infrastructures, there is a growing demand for medical electrical equipment designed for use in the home environment, for which power supplies manufacturers should not only consider standards and regulations but also the patient’s comfort and his/her environment. One aspect of designing products for the home environment, for example, is the use of the lenticular shape, eliminating hard shapes that could block a wheelchair.

Powerbox EXM2205 – Medical certified lenticular
shape external power supply for home healthcare
applications. (Source: Powerbox)

By their nature and to prevent the risk of electrical shock or malfunctioning equipment, power supplies designed for the medical segment have to comply with stringent regulatory and certification systems. The implementation of the so called IEC 60601 4th edition is one example of safety regulation enforced in that industry. But beside any regulation, power supplies manufacturers are taking their own initiatives to develop processes integrating risk assessment far above what is required by the ISO 14971, pushing their manufacturing facilities to comply with the ISO 13485. Designing a power supply for medical requires not only the best power technology but a very high level of knowledge in regulations and field of applications.

 

About the author:

Patrick Le Fèvre is Chief Marketing and Communications Officer at Powerbox – www.prbx.com


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