Market Insights

Beyond the Chips Higher Complexity of EnergyEfficient Solutions Demands System Understanding

September 01, 2015 by Adam White

Semiconductors, the cornerstone of today’s fast-moving global electronics industry, are essential to the way we live our lives in the 21st century.

Semiconductors, the cornerstone of today’s fast-moving global electronics industry, are essential to the way we live our lives in the 21st century. Computers, communication equipment, consumer products, mobile devices, automobiles, aircraft, medical equipment, lighting, industrial automation systems and renewable energy (to name but a few) are all dependent on these devices for the delivery of effective, reliable, efficient performance.

In fact, it is really no exaggeration to say that semiconductors – and not least those technologies targeting energy-efficient power management and motion control – are critical to both the ongoing advancement of the human race and our responsible stewardship of this planet’s environment and it’s precious resources. We, at Infineon, believe that we are making life easier, safer and greener – with technology that achieves more, consumes less and is accessible to everybody.

Recent history tells us that the birth of the semiconductor can be traced back to 1954 with the launch of the first transistor. Until then, many scientists had been skeptical that semiconductors could ever be realized in true commercial quantities. But, to our great benefit, history has proved otherwise, with the now famous ‘Moore’s Law’ (that the number of transistors per unit area on an IC doubles every year) remaining true for over sixty years! 

And while Moore’s Law is typically quoted in relation to processing power it can be argued that it is linked to the larger economics of semiconductor manufacture as a whole. More specifically, that ever more sophisticated chips will be developed while maintaining or driving down unit pricing. And this rule is as applicable to a power semiconductor or an LED driver IC as it is to a microcontroller or a logic device.

One thing that has changed since the birth of the semiconductor, however, is the nature of application design. In the past, the electronics industry was largely built around a few very large OEMs who had the luxury of employing extensive in-house engineering teams. These teams would typically design everything from the ‘ground-up’ – creating discrete designs optimized for their target application. However, over the years the industry has become more fragmented – with much smaller design teams (often working for specialist design houses) developing products that are then built by contract electronics manufacturing companies before being delivered to the brand owner.

At the same time, pressure to reduce both time-to-market and cost has intensified significantly. This is particularly true of the consumer electronics and mobile phone sectors, with technologies and end user devices changing faster than once a year. And even an industry such as the automotive sector, which would typically expect to have longer development cycles, is seeing those cycles shortened thanks to the pace of technological development and the growing expectation of an ever-more sophisticated buying public.

One effect of these industry changes is to increase the focus of design teams on their ‘core competencies’ where they can add competitive advantage, with the expectation that other elements of the overall system will be ‘bought in’. As a result, there is a trend away from sourcing individual semiconductor components to overall solutions – say AC/DC power modules, battery management solutions or complete BLDC motor drive schemes – that can quickly and easily be incorporated into a design.

To meet the evolving needs of the electronics sector, semiconductor manufacturers must also evolve. No longer is it enough for these companies to simply develop and manufacture ICs. They must also develop an understanding for their customer’s ‘systems’ – may that be a train, wind turbine, car, or washing machine. At Infineon we have coined the phrase ‘from product to system’ – or P2S for short – to describe our own individual approach to satisfying the system requirements of time-pressured design teams. Focusing on the three central needs of modern society – energy efficiency, mobility and security – the P2S strategy combines system know-how, application understanding and strong, mutually beneficial customer relationships. 

One illustration of the P2S approach can be seen in the comprehensive offering that Infineon has developed for cordless power tools. Bringing together technologies for charging, battery management and BLDC motor drive and control – including MOSFETs, gate drivers, microcontrollers, sensors and AC/DC controllers – this offering extends to reference designs, demonstration boards and a complete solution for a 1kW cordless power drill. The latter provides significant design flexibility and ease of use as the demo can be separated into three parts, namely a power PCB, a control PCB and a capacitor PCB. 

Finally, it is worth noting that the strategy to provide customers with access to as many solutions as possible was also one of the drivers behind Infineon’s recent acquisition of power semiconductor manufacturer International Rectifier. As well as expanding the product portfolio, extending the manufacturing footprint, supporting a stronger regional presence and delivering greater distribution strength, this acquisition accelerates the strategic evolution ‘from product thinking to system understanding’. This includes extending system know-how in efficient power management and expanding Infineon’s expertise in a variety of technologies including next-generation gallium nitride compound semiconductors.