Special Report from Darnell Group: Opportunities Strong, but Shifting, for External AC-DC Power Supplies

March 28, 2011 by Jeff Shepard

The outlook for the worldwide ac-dc external power supply market is expected to remain strong over the next several years, as evolving power architectures, smaller form factors, more efficient designs and improved power management technology combine with growing demand from new applications to create new opportunities. According to Darnell Group’s 93-page, tenth-edition, analysis, demand will shift away from traditional computing, communications and consumer applications toward emerging areas such as LED lighting.

Although currently led by the communications, computer, consumer, portable medical and lighting segments, the external ac-dc power supply industry will experience a number of significant opportunities and threats, as manufacturers scramble to produce products designed for the latest demanding high tech applications. A particularly significant technological and architectural challenge for power supply manufacturers includes a growing trend towards smaller configurations that leave room for added functionality and processing power.

However, the desire to produce smaller and lighter products often poses serious challenges for the power supply designers, as power supplies must often fit into a standard format already in use in order to avoid the expense of a costly system re-design. Despite this challenge, a number of companies have been quite successful and have introduced new products that are small, more efficient and meet strict regulatory guidelines.

The introduction of light-emitting diode (LED) lighting as an application for external power supplies represents a significant development for the industry. LEDs are growing in popularity because they are following the major trends in the lighting industry, which include a strong demand for lighting equipment which is smaller, smarter and more colorful.

Signs present the greatest area of opportunity for LEDs and bring a number of important advantages to the market. The two most obvious are lower energy consumption (up to 80% more efficient than neon) and longer operating lives compared with neon or other illumination alternatives. A specific area of opportunity is in channel letter lighting, as most LED channel letter systems are easily installed and many can be powered from a simple external ac-dc power supply.

One of the more important trends examined in the power supply market is the reduction of standby power in consumer products such as appliances, portable electronics and computer systems. End users, assisted by strengthened regulations, are demanding that power supply manufacturers provide products able to achieve the ultra-low standby power performance.

In an effort to address this problem, a number of semiconductor companies have introduced integrated circuit (IC) solutions that enable power supply systems to comply with stringent no-load and standby power requirements. Many of the new IC solutions target chargers and adapters for a broad range of small portable devices, including mobile phones, portable media players, eBook readers and tools.

Both digital power management and power factor correction (PFC) are starting to make inroads in the external ac-dc power supply market. Several companies have targeted acdc adapters/chargers for digital control. Others currently offer controllers for off-line applications such as cordless phones, mini-adapters, routers, wireless modems and other external ac-dc chargers/adapters.

In addition, regulatory moves in Europe, the United States, and elsewhere mandate high power factor for many electronic products with power requirements over 75W and for lighting products over 5W. These rules are combined with a number of application-specific standards that require high power supply efficiency across the entire load range, from full load to as low as 10% load.

One of the more important goals in power management is the reduction of standby power in consumer products such as appliances, portable electronics and computer systems. In a typical consumer household, electricity consumption derives from a large number of appliances, each with its own power supply. A number of recent studies have shown that the total energy consumed by electronic equipment and their respective power adapters while in standby or under no-load is substantial.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the total amount of electricity flowing through internal power supplies and external power adapters is nearly 470 billion kWh per year. (The Department of Energy estimates that the amount of standby energy used per year in the US is equivalent to 26 average-sized power stations.)

Although the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that the external power adapter market will no longer be eligible for the Energy Star label, there are still a number of voluntary and mandatory programs that are tasked with regulating load power consumption and operating efficiency in external power supplies. In the US, there are three main programs: the California Energy Commission (CEC); US Congress with its Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA), both of which are mandatory; and the Energy Star program, which is voluntary.

In Europe there is the Energy-related Products (ErP) Directive formally known as the Energy using Products (EuP) Directive and the European Code of Conduct (CoC). Other parts of the world that are enacting legislation are basing their limits primarily on previous Energy Star requirements.

In a development that could have a significant impact on the manufacturers of external power supplies, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) has initiated a project to establish a standard smart dc power supply that could eventually eliminate the need to carry around multiple power adapters. In order to see this project through, the IEEE initiated a working group called P1823 whose goal is to develop a specification for what it calls a "universal power adapter for mobile devices" – shortened to UPAMD.

Eventually, UPAMDs could be fitted as standard in homes, hotel rooms, trains, aircraft and cars so that a dc supply becomes as ubiquitous as the mains. The establishment of an industry-wide standard is viewed by many as a critical step toward the replacement of brand- and model-specific analog power adapters with digital power supplies that can be used and reused with multiple devices.

One of the more visible threats to the external power supply market comes from the growing use of universal serial bus (USB) power in the consumer electronics market. Examples of this can be seen in cell phones, MP3/MP4 players and ebook reader markets. The USB has effectively replaced a variety of other interfaces such as serial and parallel ports and poses a serious threat to lower wattage external power supplies. In addition, the introduction of wireless charging pads, the growing use of Power-over-Ethernet (PoE) and the eventual emergence of dc power are also expected to provide external ac-dc power supplies with significant competition.

Power-over-Ethernet (PoE) is a technology for wired Ethernet, the most widely installed local area network technology in use today. PoE allows the electrical power required by Ethernet end devices (so-called "powered devices," or PDs) to be carried by data cables along with the data, rather than by separate power cords.

Sending power over the Ethernet cables avoids the need to install ac wiring in hard-to-reach places like ceilings and other areas where it would be difficult to run electrical cabling. It thus helps minimize the number of wires used to install the network, resulting in lower cost, less downtime, easier maintenance and greater installation flexibility.

The growing use of PoE technology is making it much easier to deploy network devices by enabling both power and data to be delivered over the existing Ethernet cabling. In fact, the use of a PoE system results in a unified infrastructure that is easier to expand, upgrade and maintain often without additional ac power outlets.

Although the external power supply industry is much too large for any one or two companies to affect the entire industry, there have been a number of recent partnerships and alliances indicating a trend towards cooperation among companies representing complementary areas of interest and expertise. Several of these partnerships have been between power supply manufacturers and consumer/commercial electronics applications manufacturers; others have been between semiconductor manufacturers and power supply manufacturers, while still others have been between companies whose products are in seemingly different areas. The common thread among these partnerships and alliances is that each one was done to further the advancement of a specific technology or product trend.

Among the areas examined in this report are the architecture and packaging trends affecting the industry, as well as a thorough discussion of new and emerging technologies and components, advances in standby power management, relevant business partnerships and alliances, potential threats and the latest regulatory developments and standards.

The report also contains over 25 tables and illustrations, depicting a variety of new and emerging technologies, packaging solutions, product introductions, efficiency standards and other relevant information. The focus of this comprehensive analysis provides decision makers with an insightful look into the current and future opportunities and threats available in the external ac-dc market.

You will find complete information on this 93-page, tenth-edition, report here.