Future Trends in Power Management
In today’s world of power management products, two opposing forces wage battle. First, fierce commoditization of products used in high-volume products has driven the selling price dramatically lower over the past several years. Second, customers are increasingly demanding higher system integration and functionality.
In high-volume applications such as handsets, personal media players, set-top boxes and digital televisions, the competition in DC/DC converter products is brutal; several smaller power management companies are winning sockets at lower and lower prices, even as devices increase in performance or efficiency. In these and other similar high-volume applications, cost matters more than performance and system integration, as the price of their end product is being driven further down every day. Engineers creating these high-volume products can demand low prices because the power management semiconductor vendors are enticed by enormous volumes and are competing with other low-cost commodity power products. The company that provides the lowest cost, “good-enough” solution wins the socket. Typically this favors the smaller company with low overhead and outsourced manufacturing.
Combating the Commoditization Trend
The progression toward commoditization can be fought by capitalizing on another trend – system optimization.
As processors become increasingly powerful, sophisticated electronics must accompany them in order to take full advantage of all of their features. Power management devices can showcase a processor’s features by integrating higher levels of intelligence AND flexibility, and incorporating non-power functional blocks. Today, these sophisticated power management chips are primarily used in portable, battery-powered applications such as cell phones and personal media players/mp3 players. However, non-portable applications are turning to these solutions as well.
In battery-powered applications, customers want to wring every last bit of energy out of batteries. Features such as dynamic voltage and frequency scaling (DVFS) and automatic voltage scaling (AVS) help extend battery life by allowing the processor to enter lower power consuming modes when large amounts of processing power are not needed. DVFS allows the processor to alter its voltage rails as processing demands change. AVS optimizes each of these operating voltages depending on process variations, temperature and silicon aging. For example, if a personal media player changes from video playback to mp3 playback, the processor is not required to work as hard. The voltage can be lowered and operated in a lower power state to increase overall battery life.
For “plugged-in” electronics such as digital televisions and set-top boxes, power efficiency is an important feature and will continue to grow in its significance due to increasingly stringent regulations such as Energy Star. Televisions and set-top boxes spend the majority of their time in an idle state, so it is important to maximize the efficiency in this state. Energy Star limits standby power to less than 1W, although many companies have a goal of consuming less than 100mW while in standby. Features such as light-load efficiency and phase-dropping in multiphase topologies minimize power consumption in these inactive states in both AC and DC applications.
In order create more value to their end customers in both non-portable and battery-powered applications, power management vendors are looking at other power and non-power functional blocks that can be integrated with their power devices. Blocks such as multiple DC/DC converter outputs, audio codecs, USB phys, battery chargers, LED drivers, touch screen and keypad controllers, general purpose analog-to-digital converters create value by decreasing customer component count, total bill of material (BOM) and placement cost, and overall board size. There are potential downsides to integration though such as increased concentration of switching components and thermal stress, as well as decreased performance if the process nodes don’t align (can be a hazard when integrating audio and power in the same silicon). Based on the number of options for integration, a number of device options are available to cover the different corners of desired functionality, giving customers even more flexibility in optimizing their designs. Companies that have larger existing analog portfolios are typically more capable of capitalizing on the integration angle.
What does this all mean to the future of power management devices? It means that while the engineers place less monetary value on the function of power devices, power management companies can retain and create value by understanding their customers’ products from a system-level perspective. These companies must continually ask the questions: In what ways can we help to make the customer’s products better? How can I make the engineer’s job easier? And, is there a unique way of solving this problem? Original equipment manufacturers (OEM) will always work to increase their bottom line by paying less for the components they buy, and it is up to the power management semiconductor companies to find new ways to keep their products from being commoditized.
Texas Instruments Inc.
This article first appeared in the January, 2009 issue of Portable Design. Reprinted with permission.