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Demand for good applications engineering remains strong, but it has expanded beyond picking up the phone and answering a question or two about a particular product or datasheet clarification. That model has changed drastically over the years. Now application strategies must address customer demands for “total solution” support and design aids, including noise analysis, models, simulation, and verified circuit performance.

Unfortunately the ratio of customers to applications engineers is 1000:1, maybe more. Using only the traditional support model, some customers won’t get the help they may need to complete their design. The customer is important, though, and semiconductor companies are producing better tools for customers to help themselves.

Tools are an important part of the applications side of engineering, bridging the customer gap in just one such way to provide the support and solution needed. The good old app notes are still coveted favorites for most designers, providing timeless reference material needed to make decisions about signal chain design. However, other tools can be just as useful.

Simulation Tools

Simulation tools allow the customer to verify as much of the signal chain performance as possible before the designer gets painted into a corner. Behavior models, models generated from real bench data, were invented to give those customers, both new and experienced, a good feel for modeling analog-to-digital converter (ADC) performance under certain conditions, i.e., specific IF frequencies and sample rates. This not only gives users a performance feel, it also allows for hardware to be evaluated side by side so designers can make performance comparisons and tradeoffs.

Other tools can emulate high-speed clock distribution, enabling users to perform timing alignment and collect additive jitter expectations within the clock signal chain with a variety of clocking products. Voltage-controlled oscillator (VCO), phase-locked loop (PLL), and loop filter designs also can be constructed within these sim tools to help the customer take the first step toward making design tradeoffs.

Amplifier calculators can quickly crush the noise and power numbers down into a pie chart when selecting a particular amplifier. More importantly, a wide variety of amplifiers can be selected to determine if that particular amp can be set up for certain supply, gain, and common-mode conditions. Each setting within the tool illustrates the input and output signal to verify the functional performance limitations of that signal, permitting the user to tweak gain ratios, common-mode settings, and resistor values to maximize dynamic range.

Power simulation tools give the designers the freedom to choose their power-supply design strategy in the direction of lowest cost, smallest size, or maximum efficiency. Whichever direction that designers choose, they can get a customized bill of materials and quick-turn layout that can be ordered and sent out to the customer within a couple of days.

App Notes And More…

As a way of evolving the app note into something even more useful, semiconductor companies have been raising the bar in terms of what an app note should entail. These new app notes go a step further to offer additional design resources beyond the piece of paper on which the app note is written. This may include a reference circuit or subsystem-level building blocks that address design challenges across many technologies and applications.

These offerings truly exemplify the typical application note that many engineers collect and keep closer to their chests as reference information. However, new circuit notes go even further, not only describing a proven circuit but also providing complete documentation on how (the method) the design was arrived at with performance plots.

The reference circuit, in most cases, also provides the designer downloadable design files such as schematics, bills of materials, and Gerber files or, when applicable, device drivers and software, all of which enables easy system integration. Designers can even order circuit evaluation hardware so they can quickly come up to speed on the particular application described in the note.

These unique, new offerings are becoming very popular and growing rapidly.

Online Engineering Communities

The Web and its many uses have come to play in our society as a whole, allowing all of us to communicate as well as gather information quickly when choices need to be made. Online communities are dedicated communication outlets for customers who have an interest or a question or who want to post useful information about applications, issues, and notes related to a vendor’s ICs or parts.

These communities are more than portals for gathering and downloading information directly from the product line experts. They’re also revolving doors of qualified experts who host forums about specific applications, including designing analog front ends for high-speed ADCs and techniques for reducing power consumption in industrial designs, for example.

Use these communities at your leisure to acquire the information you need quickly and help promote new ideas and solutions so other customers like yourself will join in and make them useful libraries and reference Web sites that you can use now and in your future designs.

Other Honorable Mentions

Standardized hardware platforms, technical reference posters, online webinars, global training, IBIS models, software drivers, and educational videos also move more information closer to the customer in a variety of different ways, providing designers with preferential choices when it comes to semiconductor companies aiding in their evaluation and making design tradeoffs.

Articles, posters, and technical training help guide designers who may be new to the industry in how to make a certain tradeoffs in developing their products while allowing IC vendors to further aid in the definition of new, better products to fit future needs. There is also a growing need for these materials as the engineering community is getting younger, and those analog gurus are slowly fading away.

2012 Wrapup

The “tools” side of application engineering can certainly help bridge the customer/application engineer gap. Whether you need assistance in simulation or circuit design, or whether it’s in the form of posters, videos, online chat, or the real deal of hardware and/or software application packages, semiconductor companies have expanded their emphasis on tools and design resources to narrow this gap even more. Looking forward, even more emphasis is being placed on these tools so we application engineers can go back to our desk jobs of answering the phone and cranking out product datasheets.

To download a free PDF copy of “The Essential Guide to Data Conversion” poster, go to http://www.analog.com/en/content/HH_Data_Conversion_Poster_Email/fca.html?src=twitter.