The power industry is changing, as complex and compact electronic products and systems have driven demand for ever smaller, more efficient and cost effective power systems. Vicor is reacting to these changes, and Electronic Specifier Editor Joe Bush spoke to the company’s VP, Global Sales & Marketing, Phil Davies, about its new direction and the benefits this offers to power system design engineers.
Vicor has been heading in a very different direction over the last ten years or so, with the aim of really transforming the power industry and attitudes to how a power system should be built. In attempting to come up with the best power system solution, in recent years power designers have been forced to analyse topologies, architectures and products. Each alternative design approach requires performance calculations, datasheet searches, manual simulations, thermal projections, layout and packaging studies, BoM generation and cost analysis.
This of course has placed greater demands on engineers – something that Vicor is fully aware of, as Davies explained: “Our vision for the power industry is to make it as easy as possible for power engineers to create a power system from scratch, do it in a very fast and repeatable way and to have scalability with the design, so that the engineer can quickly adapt to changing requirements.
“We’ve spoken to a lot of engineers all over the world and they all have the same problem. What typically happens on a power design project is that an engineer will be assigned to a project, but variations that happen on that project can be immense – in terms of power specification, loads, AC and DC voltage etc - and I guarantee that will change over the course of the project, probably more than once. So, if these engineers build a power supply using discrete components you’re constantly having to redesign significant parts of the system, starting from scratch in many cases after having done an awful amount of work. And often the resources just aren’t available to adapt quickly to those changes which in turn creates a lot of problems.”
To address this challenge, a variety of power design tools have been developed. However, Vicor claim that these tools do not allow analysis of the complete power system. In addition, these tools do not provide a complete modular solution - the generated power system solutions combine a limited number of modular power devices with several discrete circuit solutions, each requiring dozens of parts. Thus, power density is compromised and the designer is challenged with figuring out the right combination of front end and DC/DC power trains and dealing with the complexities of discrete power circuit layout, thermal management, packaging and cost.
Davies continued: “We thought there must be a better way of working rather than using discrete designs. Architectures have evolved - these days you have Point of Load (PoL) devices, intermediate power systems, front end power systems etc. So power systems have become very complex and the challenges of solving these particular problems have become multi-faceted as a result. We thought we had to bring modular components to the market for front end, hub and PoL and allow the engineer access to a vast library of components to choose from to solve their system architecture and design challenges.
“But what then? When the engineer sits down to look at the system design, he/she has got so many components to choose from it’s difficult to understand the difference between them. So we said we’d make it easy and come up with an expert system that can choose from the vast array in Vicor’s library and offer up solutions to the engineer. So we have introduced the Power System Designer online design tool, giving system designers unprecedented flexibility to architect and optimise end-to-end power systems, leveraging Vicor’s Power Component Design Methodology and high performance power components.”
The online design tool simplifies and accelerates the creation of compact, multi-output, modular power systems all the way from the input source - either AC or DC - to system loads. Engineers specify the AC or DC input source and operating range, and required output voltages and respective power (or current), regulation and isolation specifications, and the tool automatically generates and identifies the best alternative solutions - each one characterised by figures of merit including highest operating efficiency, lowest component count, lowest cost, footprint and recommended best fit.
Vicor are currently expanding the library, improving the tool and offering different modular power components for front end, hub and PoL for engineers. The company’s website features the 90 second design challenge, where users can quickly get a feeling for their power architecture needs, and if changes are required – the design can be revisited if needs be and the input voltage, number of outputs etc can be changed – the tool will then re-architect the system and offer you more options.
Davies continued: “The number of applications for this type of tool is countless, particularly in the industrial space. If you move from one design to the next, the power architecture is typically very different from the previous project, so you can’t really bring an awful lot with you from the last job. Therefore, you constantly have to start almost from scratch. However, this system enables you to rapidly prototype, and gives you an idea of the space, efficiency, power, number of loads and cost - all in 90 seconds.
“There’s nothing that really compares to it in the market, and that’s where we’re different because we look at the whole system from what we call the wall plug right to the PoL – we offer solutions right across that area. We are the only company that covers the front end power, the hub and the PoL. There are companies out there that specialise in one of the three but no one else does everything.”
Engineering design dilemma
Vicor’s main challenge with this concept is that if you talk to engineers within any industry or you analyse some of the research that has been done, around 60-70% of engineers tend to want to stay with the status quo - they are reluctant to change and are very risk averse. So, Vicor’s new methodology is a big step for many.
Davies added: “Some are starting to see the value of this methodology and it is beginning to resonate within the engineering community. We have a clear message of ‘why change?’ and ‘why Vicor?’, and we have a lot of ways of getting that message across to engineers who have never worked like this before. We can then make them more comfortable by providing a big safety net of technical support with some practical tools.”
According to Vicor, there are four main ‘pains of the engineer’ (see table below) – namely time to market, lack of resources, finding the optimal components for a design and having to compromise design performance due to space or voltage constraints – and it’s these four challenges that are causing sleepless nights for power system design engineers.
Davies continued: “We use our Power Component Design Methodology to solve these problems. We can mitigate design risk because the methodology can give you optimised power chains rapidly via use of the design tool, so if you’ve got design risk in your time to market - because there are always changes - this methodology can help you get over that challenge very quickly.”
Davies added: “To deal with a lack of resources, we have applications engineers in 15 sales offices around the world (a team of around 45 people) who have designed power systems in the past who are now experts on Vicor products. They are there to support the customer as they go through the design process. The online simulation tools, which are behind the power system design, are so easy to use, are intuitive by nature and allow designs to be done very quickly.
The company’s Power Component Design Methodology enables power system designers to reap all of the benefits of modular power component design while achieving system operating efficiency, power density and economy. Another benefit, claim the company, is minimising the burden of last minute surprises and delays that can occur with conventional or custom design methodologies.
However, Davies explained further that because this methodology is different, getting risk averse engineers to fully invest in the concept and to then change past ways of working will take time. He added: “You do need to get in front of engineers, show them the concept and demonstrate it - and then follow it up with hardware to allow them to test the system - so it doesn’t just happen overnight. However, in Asia they are embracing this concept in a big way. The engineering teams are young, they have multiple projects and are looking for fast time to market solutions, so Vicor’s modular power components are the perfect answer for them.
“In Europe and North America (the more established markets), where the engineers are more senior, there are a lot of barriers to break down. So unless they have a really specific challenge that they can’t solve with a proven discrete design which they’ve used in the past, it’s a harder sell but we are seeing some good traction with many engineers seeing the benefits of the power component design methodology.”