Digital power providers must play to their strengths

Mark Downing, Intersil


It is important to properly address diverse mobile, industrial, and infrastructure markets

Investing in product areas where a company has distinct competitive technological advantages only makes sense in markets where there are also large, sustainable opportunities. Power management has evolved from simple regulation and power control to increasingly sophisticated power management devices providing monitoring, feedback and fault logging. ‘Digital power’ represents the latest generation of designs with products that feature advanced control loops, improved efficiency under all load conditions, and the ease-of-use benefits from having a point and click GUI and integrated power FETs, either on chip or in power modules

Naturally the various markets for power management have differing requirements. However a common theme is the increasing supply current demands posed as processor platforms become more and more complex. The most challenging power management issues in systems today are efficiency, reliability and intelligence.

These issues are certainly applicable in the high-growth, high-volume, mobile power market where Intersil’s strong heritage in delivering compelling products for laptop PCs and gaming consoles is enabling it to address the specific need for longer battery life and higher integration, demanded by the increased functionality and smaller, thinner form factors of smartphones and tablets (see Figure 1). For example, Intersil prides itself on its long experience in the mobile space where knowing how to source the 8-10A core currents needed by some handsets today, with 3-phase converters that allow the use of low profile inductors, differentiates it from its competitors.

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Figure 1. Demand is fuelling growth in Intersil’s target market sectors with a total projected value expected to exceed $10 Billion by 2016

Infrastructure and industrial power is a relatively stable market characterized by longer equipment life cycles but still with significant growth potential, especially in the power hungry network and data infrastructure due to the explosion in cloud-computing applications. Server designs now require many more power rails making Intersil’s best-in-class range of efficient, high-density integrated power solutions particularly attractive in simplifying system design and lowering equipment and maintenance costs.

Industrial applications have seen a similar proliferation of voltage rails as complex system designs embed processors, memory, FPGAs and ASICs. Power designers are consequently seeking advanced, robust power management solutions that are more densely integrated while being simple to design with. This is exactly what Intersil offers with its family of analog and digital controllers, power modules and switching regulators, which provide processor and memory power solutions as well as point-of-load (POL) and other power management building blocks. These solutions are as relevant in traditional sectors, such as test and measurement, factory automation and medical applications, as they are to more recent smart home and smart grid applications in allowing customers to take advantage of the latest advances in power management.

The automotive and aerospace markets are often seen as more conservative but continue to evolve, particularly in automotive where new technologies for electric vehicles, infotainment and car-to-car communications are becoming more prevalent, bringing with them new demands in battery and power management. Intersil has gained a leadership position in this sector through its expertise in supplying high reliability and radiation hard components, essential for space applications but also relevant to other harsh environments.

Solutions for mobile devices
Tablets and smartphones present increasingly complex demands for their power sub-systems. DC-DC converters, either buck, boost or buck-boost, along with PMICs address the basic handheld power requirements for all the processor, memory, wireless and other analog circuits. But displays and their backlights often have more specialist requirements, as do sensors such as ambient light, proximity and motion detection or orientation sensors.

Intersil’s latest ISL911xx switching regulator family can extend battery life in smartphones, tablets and other single-cell lithium-ion (Li) battery-based systems. A proprietary, fully synchronous 4-switch architecture enables seamless transitions between operating modes, without significant output disturbance (see Figure 2). The design also maintains system operation when the voltage drops, functioning at high current down to the lowest battery voltages and delivering up to 96% efficiency. Perhaps most significant is that the device is the first high current buck-boost configuration to be offered in an industry-leading, small-footprint CSP package.

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Figure 2: Intersil’s ISL911xx switching regulator family can extend battery life

In addition to around a 25% improvement in battery life, the ISL911xx regulators ensure the stable supply voltage that is so essential for the reliable operation of sensitive RF circuitry. These buck-boost devices support new battery chemistries, down to 2.5V, are capable of low temperature operation, and support both high burst current requirements while also achieving high efficiencies under light load conditions. This world-leading performance has already secured design wins for the ISL911xx family in top tier smartphones.

Solutions for infrastructure and industrial equipment
The industrial and infrastructure market is currently Intersil’s largest source of revenue. Within this market, power customers are increasingly looking for improved power density and ease of use. Digital power addresses this need and while the price premium of digital controllers was previously seen as an inhibitor to their adoption, the advances realized in the latest 4th generation controllers are such that digital power can significantly reduce the bill of material (BOM) cost and total cost of ownership through shorter development timescales, faster time to market and efficiency improvements.

Fully digital power solutions make coping with the complexity of multiple rails easier, allow different firmware configurations to be held on chip and generally provides the flexibility and benefits that programmability intrinsically offers. Digital power enables advanced system monitoring of every aspect of the power supply, including input/output voltages and currents, as well as temperature. This data can be used for dynamic control and for enhancing overall system reliability through automated fault logging.

As an example, Intersil’s ISL8270M and ISL8271M digital power modules provide either a 25 or 33 Amp supply current, ideal for servers and infrastructure equipment (see Figure 3). These modules incorporate Intersil’s 4th generation ZL8800 controller that utilizes a patented control loop technique to deliver a highly integrated digital DC/DC power control solution with a real-time configuration capability and true system intelligence. Finally, the configuration and monitoring of digital devices benefits enormously from an intuitive graphical user interface (GUI).

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Figure 3: Intersil’s ISL8270M and ISL8271M digital power modules provide either a 25 or 33 Amp supply current

Intersil’s PowerNavigator provides exactly that and allows designers to use Intersil’s digital power products without writing a single line of code. This free, downloadable tool offers an easy-to-use, drag-and-drop interface that significantly accelerates design time, while also ensuring the flexibility that designers need to quickly set up and control any power supply architecture (see Figure 4). PowerNavigator even provides a “hardware-free” mode that lets users create their required power architecture and select components prior to hardware development, without design risk.

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Figure 4: Intersil’s PowerNavigator allows designers to use digital power products without writing code

The PowerNavigator GUI provides access to all commands and setup configurations, including the ability to load predefined configurations for common applications. Once the initial hardware has been developed, the GUI can apply saved settings and monitor all the rails, displaying whatever telemetric data may be required. Designers can make final system adjustments through the GUI with simple and intuitive controls and even sequencing of the rails is possible through the visual drag-and-drop interface.