Why are energy prices rising and how should engineers respond?
The supply of energy is under intense scrutiny and is being squeezed by natural and political factors. Lee O’Toole, Marketing Manager, Anders discusses.
Once-plentiful fossil fuels are becoming scarce and basic supply-and-demand dynamics are raising prices. Also, concern about their environmental effects is drawing government tariffs. In addition, current political events are driving up oil and gas prices and there are after-effects from the pandemic, including massively increased costs for services like shipping.
Why is low-power product design important?
There is no doubt that we need to manage energy much more carefully than we have in the past. The quantity of energy that enterprises consume to create products and deliver services will play an increasing factor in their overall costs, translating into increased prices for customers, changing buyer behaviour, and competition in the marketplace. For individuals, rising domestic utility bills and travelling costs may demand savings, such as lower spending on hobbies, activities, or food.
Businesses in the high-tech sector can expect more scrutiny from supply-chain partners and end users about a range of subjects, from business policies and carbon status to the operating efficiency and power consumption of the products they place on the market.
For us as engineers, we can view these pressures as opportunities to apply our intellect and training to create effective solutions. This is the defining challenge of our time: whereas previous generations of scientists and engineers have created new technologies and products that have vastly improved the quality of our lives, we must now engineer for sustainability, to consolidate those gains while consuming less energy and avoiding waste. If we think afresh about every block in the diagram, we can aggregate many small gains that sum to a large overall improvement.
How can we make low-power systems even more efficient?
At Anders, we are increasingly finding that customers want us to take an existing system design that is already working effectively and re-engineer it to deliver the same or better performance, using less power.
There are many ways to achieve this, including replacing components with the latest-generation equivalents, re-designing embedded software for more frugal power management, or maybe rethinking the overall look and feel to swap a power-hungry graphical display with a lower-power e-ink solution: monochrome is cool in more ways than one.
On the other hand, introducing extra intelligence like proximity sensing – through a combination of extra sensors and associated firmware tuning – can reduce the overall power consumed by equipment like industrial control panels or digital signage. Ensuring they only spring into life when somebody approaches allows them to spend more time in reduced-power modes when they are not being used.
With so much focus on energy, everywhere, there are numerous opportunities for engineers to save it in their designs: like using backlight timers to reduce dwell time (like on your phone); smarter processors not only allow many more reduced-power operating modes than their predecessors, but also now feature hardware accelerators that accomplish functions like cryptography more quickly and efficiently. Others are introducing AI, such as neural networks or decision trees, to handle workloads like facial or activity recognition extremely efficiently.
Also, combined with enhanced thermal engineering, these ultra-low-power processors can allow fanless operation that not only saves power, but also reduces audible noise and enhances reliability. Hence the resulting system is not only greener, but also more pleasant to use and longer lasting.
There are practically infinite opportunities to trim power from any system. It’s about finding ways to improve wherever we look. And then having the expertise to optimise each part of the design and ultimately deliver the result.