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The increasing number of electronic applications integrating power electronics makes one thing very clear: The power semiconductor market will continue to grow and gain more presence across a variety of markets. In this article, experts offer their forecast for one specific area of interest.
Power Modules and Reference Designs
Designers rely on power modules to speed up designs and optimize space using smaller, easy-to-use power modules. We asked Steve Goacher, marketing director of power modules at Texas Instruments, what trends will likely impact the power-module industry in 2017:
“The semiconductor and packaging technologies used in power modules have advanced considerably, and the industry is developing modules today that are denser, less expensive, and easier to use. Packaging technology has evolved to be considerably smaller and perform better thermally versus discrete designs.
“For example, the former large open-frame, leaded packaging has migrated to small surface-mount, and often over-molded, solutions. An example is TI’s TPS82130 3-A 17-V step-down converter module with integrated inductor. The module supports input voltages up to 17 V and output currents up to 3 A—all in a 3- × 2.8- × 1.5-mm package size. It is a fraction of the size and cost of Power Trends’ original PT78HT305 that measured a stout 25 × 25 × 10 mm. As well, the TPS82130 is 40% smaller than the discrete equivalent.
“Modules must be designed to work for a wide range of applications and are typically tested to meet EMI requirements, operating over extended temperatures and environmental conditions. Engineers may ‘just plug a module in,’ but the expectation is that it will work over the lifetime of the product. As modules continue to get smaller and easier to use, engineers will increasingly choose a module over a discrete design.
“It’s not outlandish to expect that power modules will make up a significant percentage of the overall dc-dc power market within just a few years. Advances in packaging and semiconductor technologies will continue, and the industry will see even further dramatic improvements in module density and cost.”
Wireless-Power Apps and DC-DC Conversion
During 2016, wireless-power applications started to pick up across many fields in the semiconductor industry, and it will continue to do so. Also, advances in deep-learning technologies and the use of higher voltage distribution inside data centers led to new alternatives for handling power efficiency, according to Alex Lidow, CEO of Efficient Power Conversion:
“Wireless power will continue to gain traction with increased consumer demand. Hewlett Packard, Dell, jjPlus, and Witricity have already announced products based on Airfuel standards. And, products based upon the Qi standard will continue to grow at a rapid pace.
“Qualcomm has included the Airfuel format into Snapdragon chipsets, reducing the cost to enable wireless charging in hundreds of millions of cell phones, tablets, and Chromebooks. Automotive companies including Toyota and GM have wireless charging in vehicles. Furniture makers such as IKEA are embedding wireless chargers into desks, tables, lamps, and chair armrests.
“Servers will be limited by their power density. Servers have shifted toward cloud computing, artificial intelligence, and deep learning, resulting in exponential growth in the inter-server communications requirement. Extremely fast computations need to be made inside the server farm to keep pace with the growing use of massive parallel computations.
“A new limitation is the density of the server itself. More servers need to be packed closer together, and have the functional elements inside packed more tightly to speed computation and communication. Getting the heat out and making the servers more energy-efficient has been elevated from a cost savings to a bottleneck to performance.
“OpenRack and OpenCompute projects are increasing the distribution voltage inside the server itself. This approach, plus transitioning to new materials such as gallium nitride in the power-conversion systems, can reduce overall power consumption by 20% and increase server densities by 30-40%.”
RF and Wireless
The communications industry continues to march onward in its relentless search for wider bandwidth spectrum at higher frequencies. Greg Henderson, vice president, RF and Wireless business unit for Analog Devices, gives his take on what to expect for RF and wireless in 2017:
“There are two mega-trends driving RF, microwave, and millimeter-wave technology: the insatiable demand for broadband connectivity, and the emergence of wireless sensing.
“The exponential growth of broadband data is driving wireless (and wired) communications systems to more effectively use existing bandwidth, even as the industry searches for wider bandwidth spectrum at higher frequencies. To make effective use of the wireless channel, system operators are moving toward massive-MIMO, multi-antenna systems that transmit multiple wide-bandwidth data streams—geometrically adding to system complexity and power consumption.
“This trend can be seen in markets such as cellular access, point-to-point radio, and satellite and military communications, where peak data rates have been increasing by about 58% each year for last six years and total mobile data traffic is expected to grow at 45% CAGR to 2020. For system operators, higher-frequency systems provide the promise of greatly increased data rates, but with significant added complexity due to propagation challenges and inherently lower power efficiency.
“The other rapidly emerging market is wireless sensing. Originally serviced by discrete solutions for military systems, the technology has evolved to a point where there are a broad array of wireless-sensing applications such as automotive radar for driver assistance, industrial radar for applications such as drone collision avoidance and smart traffic systems, and millimeter-wave scanners for airport security.
“In wireless sensing, higher bandwidth means higher resolution, and this is driving systems to higher frequencies. As with the communications sector, wireless sensing is moving to multi-antenna (phased-array) systems that allow for sophisticated beamsteering and multi-beam sensing configurations.
“Analog Devices has a broad commitment to the communications infrastructure and sensing markets, and is investing in the above technologies to bring system-level innovation in performance, efficiency, size, and complexity up through 100GHz.”
Two experts from Maxim Integrated reveal what they see as emerging trends in these two key industry sectors. In terms of interfaces, David Andeen, applications director, contends that:
“Interface ICs will continue to help simplify high-bandwidth designs while making them more robust and reliable. Maxim offers an array of interface ICs for interconnection, signal translation, voltage protection, current protection, and electrical isolation. Application areas that will benefit include automotive, communications, and industrial. Part of this portfolio is wired interface solutions, which also shouldn’t be overlooked as there are plenty of applications—mobile and automotive, for example—where the impact on overall cost and performance would prohibit wireless communications.”
On the automotive front, David Loftus, vice president, worldwide sales and marketing, predicts that:
“We will see driver-assistance features being added to cars that will improve safety. An example of this is an increased number of optical cameras being added to cars to enable a vision system for accident avoidance. Such new systems will require high-speed video distribution throughout the car. With this, we will see dramatic increases in computational capability required to process vision-system data, which in turn requires more efficient power management. These trends play to Maxim’s strengths in video distribution and power management.”
IGBT and SiC-MOSFET Gate Drivers
We asked Michael Hornkamp, senior product marketing manager at Power Integrations Inc., what challenges will confront IGBT and SiC-MOSFET gate drivers this year:
“The power electronics market is moving faster than ever before. Besides traditional industrial, renewable, and traction sectors, new applications such as energy-storage systems, micro-grids, and dc chargers are emerging, which place new demands on power semiconductors, specifically in terms of packaging, gate-driver functionality, and compactness.
“Also, as the automotive world moves to electric vehicles, this creates challenges for IGBT and SiC-MOSFET ICs, and their associated gate drivers. New packages for high-voltage IGBTs (1.7 kV, 3.3 kV, and up to 6.5 kV) and high-voltage SiC-MOSFETs (1700 V to 3.3 kV) are being introduced, so gate drivers need to be reconsidered to deliver the required isolation and gate-drive functionality within the reduced space available on top of the new modules. Finally, gate drivers must manage the paralleling of these new package technologies.
Because of these developments, discrete gate drivers are no longer suitable. Furthermore, a wide range of SiC-MOSFET gate voltages by must be available as the gate driver is paired with higher switching frequencies; faster short circuit detection (below 2 µs) is also necessary.
“A clear trend for the EV automotive market is the use of on-chip current and temperature sense. Besides traditional dc-link measurement, there is a need for sophisticated fault reporting and management. The emerging technologies benefit from advanced controls and the gate driver must be able to provide galvanically isolated on-chip current- and temperature-sensing data. Power Integrations’ investment in new technologies and products supports the current and future needs of power electronics design.”
Pierre Laboisse, executive vice president, Global Sales & Marketing at ams, offers his perspective on where the sensor market will focus in 2017:
“Data is everywhere, and sensors are at the very heart of that. Sensors are helping expand networks to endpoints that were not dreamed of 20 years ago. As a sensors company, ams is focusing its efforts on four key areas we believe will be the most important in the coming years: optical, imaging, environmental, and audio sensing. We’re working very hard to identify and address all of the market opportunities in each of these areas.
“While no one really knows what technology’s next “killer application” will be, we are confident that any killer app will rely on sensors. These tiny, powerful solutions are creating the interface between the analog and the digital world to mimic human senses.
“The medical space provides a good example of what’s to come. With the high costs of healthcare, medical equipment is becoming increasingly mobile. An at-risk diabetic patient might wear a smart watch that automatically tests blood-glucose levels, and sends that data directly to a caregiver for monitoring without disrupting the patient’s life unless there is a problem.
“Along the same lines, heart rate, blood pressure, and even other forms of blood analysis all can be possible from the patient’s home. It’s like bringing the doctor and lab right to the patient. Fewer office visits, lowered costs, and more patient independence are just some of the benefits.
In the future, as these solutions all become even more accurate, physicians and practitioners will use the vital signs measured by sensors and other tools—likely with video backup—to make their diagnoses remotely. For patients, and in particularly the elderly, the result is better quality of life, improved health safety, and independence.”