Why power EEs need good gear

Kevin Parmenter, Power Systems Design Contributor



Kevin Parmenter, Power Systems Design Contributor

The test and measurement industry is undergoing a radical shift, not too unlike the semiconductor industry and other aspects of the technology world.  First and foremost are changes in global consolidation and the M&A activities.  I’ve started reading “Makers and Takers: The Rise of Finance and the Fall of American Business,” which sets out to explain why the constant M&A and selling and buying activities benefit the fortunate few. Only four or five major test equipment companies seem to dominate the mainstream test equipment market in the electronics industry – although margins are probably falling as this too becomes commoditized as more entities are bought and sold than ever before. There are two choices to grow the test and measurement market share for suppliers: acquisition or innovation – or both at once if you have the resources.

In the power electronics world, we not only need the standard test equipment that other electronics engineers need – namely, oscilloscopes, DMM’s, signal generators and the like – we also need specialized equipment such as electronic loads, current probes, sophisticated (single and multiphase) power meters for measuring PFCs and power on complex waveforms to high resolution, frequency response analyzers, AC sources, infrared thermal cameras and temp chambers. And now standard PMBus diagnostic and development tools are becoming necessary, not specifically just for chip makers, but also at the system level. 

With the wide bandgap devices getting ever more attention, new techniques and test equipment are becoming necessary. engineers must answer questions like: How does one measure a GaN or SiC device, which switches in sub 10nS, slewing 100s of volts in that time? We need the probes that can do this.  We need devices to measure and generate such things as transient and surge capability of our designs to meet the worldwide IEC as well other standards such as K.21 enhanced resistibility standards.

Testing is becoming necessary as power electronics are deployed around the world in hostile conditions with poor power grids and with lightning strikes being a frequent occurrence. Engineers need transient and surge testers, ESD generators, semiconductor device avalanche testers, as well as equipment that induces EMC into our products to test for susceptibility to external effects. 

Also spurring the need for test equipment are increasingly stringent global regulatory standards, which is making it necessary to access EMC test equipment, such as spectrum analyzers and line impedance stabilization networks (LISNs), that measure conducted and radiated emissions. And while it might not be always possible to have a full in-house compliance lab, it is good practice to have a pre-compliance set-up for engineers to use. 

It often amazes me when companies without budgets for test equipment complain when they have to bring something to the compliance lab. In reality, they could have purchased a couple of pre-compliance test stations for what is spent at the test lab on hourly fees.  I frequently think, for goodness sake management, get your engineers the tools they need to do their job.  After all, their employers supply mechanics working on aircraft or automobiles with the right tools – don’t our engineers deserve the same? 

Frankly, there’s no excuse for designers not have the equipment they need to be successful to compete in global markets.  Used, quality test equipment is available from EBay and other sources, including test equipment rental companies.  Often this equipment is available from companies who went out of business or who turned it back in from their lease (after they paid for it 10 times over) and it simply needs calibration.  You are only as good as your tools (managers I’m talking to you).

I believe we will see more M&A and sell offs in the test equipment market. This creates the opportunity for creating the niche products we need for power electronics design and development. Meanwhile, more capacities are becoming available in smaller and smaller packages, USB instruments or portable handheld instruments.  I have witnessed and will test a handheld scope with built in spectrum analysis capabilities for pre-compliance testing – more on that after I take a test drive!