Maxim CTO Dave Dwelley says the electronics design process has improved immeasurably, but it needs to be easier and faster still...
Engineers are perpetually pressed to meet time-to-market challenges, as their managers demand faster design through a series of increasingly more user-friendly tools. Microelectronic technology has made it possible to optimize the process of designing microelectronics.
David Dwelley, vice president and chief technology officer at Maxim Integrated, told EE Times and EDN his views on the next generation in electronics design. I had the pleasure of interviewing Dwelley about new power solutions and what he thinks about them.
The evolution of electronics is more significant than the one occurring in other sectors. We all need to automate processes to make them efficient; we all need energy savings to safeguard the planet. We need to rely on technology. To do this, we need to engineer ourselves with electronic and mechanical solutions, in addition to computing technology. We have to make the electrons travel according to our expectations to get a specific response with or without control feedback and to do so, we need to act just like competent Lego engineers and combine transistors and MOSFETs to get the key to success. Once we define the hardware, then we move on to software to complete the project.
“Some of the best and brightest engineers coming out of college today are computer engineers because they see it as the greatest growth or the greatest opportunity,” said Dwelley.
But computer engineers in some cases can’t conceive the hardware vision that an electronic engineer could have. Engineers with cross-disciplinary training gets over that barrier. For example, control and automation engineering relies on technological knowledge from different engineering disciplines (mechanical, electrical, electrical engineering, computer science, etc.) to build automated machines, systems, and processes.
In the past, the initial demand for electronic applications involved complicated designs, which were mostly analog. The discrete components, integrated circuits that were not exceptionally integrated, and single-sided PCBs would be considered cumbersome designs today. A possible request for modification by the customer implied a drastic reworking of the wiring diagram, with consequent reconstruction of the entire project. Some electronic components were probably lost as well. Now, everything has changed. All it takes is an MCU to implement great projects. Projects that, today, in most cases, are based on sensors and actuators, with intermediate algorithmic processing, are faster and more and more intelligent.
The engineering process today is also partly driven by the competition, but also partly by all the automation tools that are now available that we didn’t have 20 years ago. “That means it is possible to do things at relatively good quality and at a high speed,” said Dwelley.
There are currently many engineers and designers; everyone has a different experience. There are those who have experienced the transition from analog to digital and those who have lived the digital experience to the fullest.
There is undoubtedly one thing to highlight: today, the ecosystem is driven by the desire or need to go out first, and to do this, you need ready solutions and development kits, that allow you to do it. IC is not the only thing you need; there is also the need for a custom solution to design in a better and faster way.
“I have a strong feeling that component optimization happens within the suppliers,” said Dwelley.
Suppliers generally have many resources within their companies on how to optimize those components, and customers have fewer, so there is a need for component optimization. With an increasing specialization of the industry, we are progressively moving towards that model of delivering complete circuits, whether it is a reference project or a real piece of hardware with integrated software.
“Designers are not the same age. They don’t come out in the same engineering environment, and they want their information differently, but in the end, they want the same thing,” said Dwelley.
Currently, design teams follow a standard design algorithm that makes it easy to get the solution. Automation tools make it possible to avoid paper and implement electrical schematics with the help of the computer, thus improving operation.
Engineers have to adapt to an increasingly automated flow, separating the definition part of the project from the design part of the project. Not all engineers are involved in the definition. “The engineers who make the most effective design these days are not necessarily there. Their emphasis shifts towards tools and flows,” said Dwelley.
Engineers also have to interface with customers who report that definition within the company. “However, the people who do best are the ones who have a substantial engineering background. So yes, some engineers are strongly involved in that process. But is every engineer the right person to be doing that process? No, not necessarily,” said Dwelley.
The modeling of the system is, therefore, important. It is a design methodology that is based on the production of a model that implements a system and fully represents its functionality so that the designer can predict the behavior and effects of variations. A simulation is a fundamental tool for modeling because without necessarily resorting to physical prototyping, the developer can verify the functionality of the modeled system with the design specifications. In recent years, design systems have evolved to include increasingly more advanced and integrated modeling and simulation tools. The combination of modeling and rapid prototyping is, for many applications, one of the alternative development options for simulation. Even if the simulation is cheaper and faster than prototyping, the wide availability of rapid prototyping boards has made this type of approach to the design of embedded systems convenient, considering that the prototype also has the advantage of allowing an evaluation of the feasibility and reliability of the final system as it is made with the same physical components that are virtual in the simulator.
Power electronics has a relatively modern set of simulation tools that can make our challenges simpler. These are tools that fit well with what you might call the traditional power supply voltage, the right switching voltage regulator design. Motor control is similar, and these tools can be used in those same applications. “At the end of the day, motor control in the modern sense is just a pulse width modulated waveform into a reactive load,” said Dwelley. In the past, the soldering iron was the preferred tool, nowadays the preference goes to the simulator.