Apr 22, 2014

Intersil Re-emerges

posted by Bryon Moyer

When you’re musing over Silicon Valley comings and goings over a beer, it’s not unreasonable to hear the question, “Whatever happened to [place company name here]?” And, in some cases, the answer will be, “Oh, they’re still around, they’re just kind of quiet these days.”

Well, that seems to have been the case with a name that’s been around for a long time. If memory serves, they were my first interview as I prepared to move from college to real work. And they’re taking a new initiative to re-establish themselves and their raisons d’être. They’re even referring to it as a re-introduction.

The company in question? Intersil.

They’re calling themselves “A Power Management Company” to articulate what they’re about in a nutshell. They see themselves as leaders in one market, and they’re looking to leverage that into two other important growing markets.

Bucking the mobile incumbents

The one thing that unites mobile applications is the battery. But there’s a catch: Intersil says that optimal battery voltages are in the 3.3-3.5-V range, but that the full battery voltage range, from charged to empty, runs from 2.5 V to 4.5 V. So the converter may have to drop or raise the battery voltage depending on the charge level of the battery. Enter “buck-boost” converters, which can act both as boost (raising) or as buck (dropping) regulators.

The real tricky part is managing the transition from buck to boost and vice versa. For you singers, there’s an interesting analogy. Normally we sing with a “normal” or “chest” voice. Or we can pop up and sing in “head” voice or falsetto. But there’s that point right where the two ranges overlap where you need to transition – even glide – from one to the other. And you don’t want that “yodel” affect (unless you’re yodeling) – you want to move smoothly through it with no one really noticing where the transition happened.

Same thing when moving between buck and boost. And this is, in particular, what Intersil claims to be really good at.

Figure_1_red.png

 

Image courtesy Intersil

RF is another area where they say a very stable yet responsive regulator is needed. They’re even responsive enough to handle envelope tracking, although that will be a future application – if it ever happens (apparently it’s a topic of hot debate, and not really top of mind with Intersil).

They see mobile power challenges growing largely because the SoCs and displays are demanding more power. They see the incumbents in this market as being really good at integration, but that they don’t have the underlying architectures required to excel here. So they’re taking aim at these applications, and they’ve announced new buck-boost regulators (ISL911xx) in this space to get established.

Controlling power digitally

The other skill they claim is digital power, which, ideally, means replacing the analog control parts with digital control (the actual power part is still analog, of course).

But let’s be real here: They don’t just claim digital control as a skill; they say they pretty much invented it around 2005. And that they replace their analog control with digital control, while other companies wrap their analog control with a digital interface.

They see the home for this being big industrial installations, where complex networks of power must be monitored and controlled. With the recent announcement of their ISL8270M/71M family of digital power modules for 25- and 33-amp applications, they say that digital features are now available without a big price barrier.

One of the benefits of a digital approach is realized in what they call their ChargeMode technology. Essentially, given load perturbations – say, aging in the components – they can compensate within a single cycle, replacing any charge missing from the output cap. This involves changing the stability point, which wouldn’t be possible with an analog design. It also helps compensate for transients, keeping the supply nice and steady.

Intersil also provides a design tool to help configure the digital power modules. Think of it as CAD for power: PowerNavigator. It provides a drag-and-drop way of configuring a power system with multiple sources, along with their monitoring and alarm characteristics.

PowerNavigator.png

Click image to enlarge.   Image courtesy Intersil

So with these announcements, Intersil is trying to reinsert itself into the power battle, in particular gunning for markets it doesn’t currently own (mobile and industrial) based on what it knows from the market it currently dominates (personal computing).

You can find out more about their new buck-boost devices here and their new digital control modules here.

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Apr 21, 2014

On the Scene: Project Ara

posted by Amelia Dalton

The race hasn't yet begun. In fact, we're not even on the starting block, but the rule book for this race - the race to the next major innovative mobile platform (smartphone) has been drafted and teams are starting to assemble. Google's Project Ara, the world's first completely modular smartphone is coming, and the modules will be designed by... YOU! On your mark. Get set. Design!

 

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Apr 17, 2014

Wireless and LED Power Combined

posted by Bryon Moyer

From where we sit in the electronics world, you can sometimes be lulled into thinking we see all that goes on around us. And then you suddenly get introduced to a whole new area that operates all on its own, with its own expectations, standards, and even language. (“Troffer” is used no less than seven times in the release I’m about to reference. It’s a portmanteau of “trough” and “coffer” – a fixture for fluorescent lights. But I digress.)

The thing is, these once-independent worlds are starting to come together. The one we’re talking today, as you’ve probably guessed, is lighting. Commercial, to be specific. And there are actually two different worlds here: the world of controls, which has largely focused on HVAC and other systems that long ago acquired more than just on/off switches, and the world of lighting.

LEDs have changed lighting forever. They provide opportunities both for savings and for control that prior technologies can’t handle. Combine that with an apparent Title 24 mandate pushing commercial lighting to be both dimmable and accessible by the utilities, and you have now brought controls and lighting together.

Specifically, we’re talking about Daintree, a company with a history in controls, and LG, a company that makes… well, we won’t list them all here, but… amongst their weaponry are such diverse elements as LEDs (and a bunch of other stuff). This not only brings controls into lighting, but also raises the possibility of merging the controls of HVAC and other systems together with lighting for more holistic energy management.

Their recent joint announcement addresses a fundamental challenge with change like this: not only the cost of installing new plant, but, in particular, the cost of retrofitting existing buildings. They claim installation cost savings of 85% and resulting energy efficiency improvements of up to 90%. Nine-oh. That’s… a lot.

And the key to this is simple: wireless. It is possible to install wireless network circuits next to existing light fixtures, but Daintree and LG have gone further than that: LG has integrated the wireless capability into the LED drivers. So a single unit will provide both the power and the networking. Which makes a ton of sense, because ultimately it’s the power that the network is controlling.

You can see, of course, how wireless saves installation money as compared to using a wired network. Not even sure I need to describe what would be needed to run a wired network to all lighting fixtures… With wireless, you install, “pair up” – basically, give all the nodes an identity in the mesh, and you’re off.

They’ve chosen Zigbee for its low cost and low power, saying it was the simplest, most cost-effective solution. Unlike some of the descriptions I’ve heard, they found it “streamlined” – as long as you’re not moving lots of data. Which, of course, they’re not. And it has a meshing capability built-in (we’ll talk about meshing with BlueTooth in a future piece).

These types of solutions will also eventually make their way to residential lighting, although they say that the sale will be different. For commercial, it’s all about ROI. I’m assuming that the ROI story would hold with homes as well, but that may not be the way they appeal to buyers.

You can read more about the joint Daintree-LG solution in their announcement.

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