The Driving Force Behind Power

Whereas the idea of power in electronics was once a relatively simple one, an insular world based on a clear set of boundaries and basic expectations, it’s clear today more than ever that new frontiers of possibility have inspired a push to find new solutions outside the traditional boundaries and made the world of power systems as necessarily complex as many of the other parts of today’s circuit. As the demands increase for every part of modern components and systems to become ‘smarter’ and more capable of complex functions, companies like the market leading Exar Corporation continue to redefine the balance between streamlined simplicity and complex functionality in cutting-edge power electronics. In a recent interview, Exar’s director of marketing for power products, Jon Cronk, gave a breakdown of the company’s recent line of Universal PMICs and a bit of info on where the company sees itself standing out in the market both now and in the near future.

“The main driving forces we see in the power systems market today are simplicity, density, efficient low power modes and intelligence—which itself is comprised of telemetry and monitoring, dynamic control and reconfigurability of the power system,” Cronk enumerates. He points out that Exar has been working on programmable power devices for over a decade, with the first component released in 2009 and the latest parts released in the final quarter of last year. With its newest efforts, Exar continues to make a name for themselves in the popular world of what are known as ‘universal’ PMICs, though as Cronk explains, “We use the term ‘Universal PMIC’ as tongue-and-cheek, because PMICs are dedicated to a particular processor.” Inconveniently, though, he explains, all processors don’t do the same job for different customers. “Our Universal PMICs are as market-specific as an FPGA, meaning that they can be used for any kind of embedded system that you could possibly think of. That’s why our Universal PMICs are more widespread in the broader market than any other in the market today.”

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Exar’s PMICs, which provide high-density, efficient and intelligent power management, allow for high complexity operations while still simultaneously simplifying the rest of the system. These products are suitable for a wide variety of fields, from teleconferencing systems to IP cameras to high-end audio systems and military applications. Cronk goes on to explain how Exar’s wide presence in the market stands as a powerful driving force behind their innovative success with universal PMIC design, saying that “Exar is present in a uniquely broad range of applications, the fact of which drove us to our last product release in November – the XR77129, which is the only digital control-loop programmable part in the marketplace that has a 40V input range.” Exar has also released five power modules to address increasing demands for both density and simplicity, two of which fall under the universal PMIC heading (the XRP9710 and XRP9711). “We have also released three power modules that use a proprietary constant, on-time control scheme,” Cronk rounds out.

A major point of contention for those in the advanced power systems field these days is re-definition of ideal simplicity in terms of today’s complex systems. As Mr. Cronk clarifies, much of Exar’s work goes into creating a forward-thinking balance between simplicity and advanced functionality. “For instance,” Cronk relates, “a design may have some sophisticated sequencing and timing and fault reporting that a particular system needs. That is where our universal PMICs step in.” With Exar’s products, an added attention to overall simplicity is clear from the inclusion of design tools that allow users to easily integrate universals into their specific systems. “In short,” Cronk sums up, “we make it very simple for the customer to quickly modify these power systems in order to meet the needs of their FPGA before it is available to be put on the board.”

Cronk also relates a particular case that goes an impressive distance in demonstrating the real-world advantages of Exar’s adaptable designs. He explains that, “in this, we were able to guide a customer experiencing a nebulous overvoltage issue that was causing disruption to a large system to change a single bit in the configuration of the part in the nonvolatile memory from a 0 to a 1, which immediately disabled the overvoltage protection.” The result was that Exar’s customer was able to eliminate all of these failures overnight without sending a technician into the field. “If they were using an analog controller of any type, an overvoltage is an internal function of the chip and the customer could be stuck with that problem,” Cronk insists, echoing that, “this case demonstrates the unique advantage of remote configurability inherent in our Universal PMICs.”

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Of course, we had to ask Jon to give us some more details on the efficiency specs of some of Exar’s recent offerings, and luckily, he was keen to oblige. “Our universal PMICs have the lowest power consumption in the market today,” he makes clear with no hesitation. “Low power and light load modes are the one of the driving forces in the market, but, if you take a look at our universal PMICs, we are the only ones that have what is known as a digital PFM mode, which reduces power consumption at light loads in power supplies to greatly reduce switching losses.” Cronk describes how Exar’s XRP7724 and its 40V follow-on, the XR77129, can maintain efficiencies above 80% all the way down to load currents as light as 10mA on a 20A rail. Naturally, Cronk knows when the facts make grandstanding unnecessary, concluding that “with these specs to prove it, Exar’s solutions offer the best efficiencies at light loads by far.”

In wrapping up some of the more in-depth discussion about Exar’s universal PMIC family, Cronk takes a moment to point out some of the things that differentiate Exar more specifically from the competition. “A major difference,” he says, “is that almost everybody else out there is doing their digital control with an ARM, in a PIC or DSP core running code. Those options consume huge amounts of power even when sitting there doing nothing.” Instead of using a processor running code, he explains, Exar employs the use of a state machine, reducing cost and ensuring “that we get it right up front,” Cronk remarks, adding notably that the effort “reduces the quiescent current by an order of magnitude.”

In considering the variety of customers that Exar hopes to be able to serve with such a strong focus on bringing the ‘universal’ PMIC as close to truly universal possible, he says that, sometimes, “you can come across a small company that has one person doing the entire hardware system who, in general, would not be power-savvy.” Exar hopes the streamlined service they provide will help to make things easier not only for them, but finds that “with larger customers like Intel who are highly skilled in power, they are still able to (and do) choose products like Exar’s XRP7724 to power new platforms, such as the developing Intel Grantley platform, because particularly at their level, we provide the best trade-off between cost and telemetry that is available today.”

It’s true in a basic sense that in the past, power systems were able to do their jobs effectively by simply providing power and meeting scale requirements. Today, however, Cronk points to the increasing importance of intelligence, even at the component level. “With our universal PMICs and other similar programmable products, we now have a power system that can be touched by the software engineer. If your power system can’t be touched by your software system then that piece of hardware on your board does not allow you to differentiate your product,” he insists. Thankfully, in a universe full of possibilities, Exar continues to capably lead the charge to make ‘universal’ work for the individual.


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