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Incorporating power electronics design technologies

16 Oct 2012  | Tony Christian

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For example, data should be able to be exchanged seamlessly between the thermal simulation of a power circuit and the electrical circuit simulator to enable transient junction temperatures to be calculated directly.

Not only would such comprehensive integration enable a better balance between the all of the system characteristics to be achieved, but it would also provide the opportunity to reduce the design timescale dramatically.

The third challenge
The third challenge arises from the fact that the recent history of using the sophisticated design tools available for power electronics design has enabled the capture of all kinds of knowledge regarding power electronics performance – electrical, thermal, EMC, reliability and so on. As a result, adequate designs for the majority of applications can be developed relatively easily based on the knowledge and rules encapsulated in the modern design tools.

The drive for improved designs is therefore focused on the 1% efficiency improvement or the small reduction in size or weight, making the use of leading edge simulation and analysis tools essential. For the developers of those tools, the challenge then becomes how to make them accessible to a much broader community of users than the traditional market of specialist analysts in companies with large R&D budgets.

Developments in recent years in both the electrical and mechanical design software tools, assisted by continued advances in IT hardware and infrastructures, have made substantial progress in addressing these issues. The ability to exchange data between different solutions for different disciplines from different vendors has improved enormously, while companies like Ansoft, Zuken and Gecko Research now offer integrated suites with the ability to perform complete multidomain simulations and analyzes of power electronics systems, including the full time and frequency performance of the circuit, the thermal behavior, the electromagnetic and electro�mechanical behavior and mechanical stress analysis.

The fourth challenge for both multidiscipline analyses and greater accessibility has been the computing power required – even a single-discipline analysis for a moderately complex power electronics design is a highly computing intensive problem. Typically, a simulation is run for each step in a time/frequency series so that many thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of simulation runs can be required to fully validate all aspects of system performance.

The computing requirement is heightened by the fact that many control systems now involve software control and the additional variable of the software set up introduces yet further dimensions to the analysis problem. The promise of 'infinite' computing resources in the cloud and the growth in power of dedicated processors that can be added locally mean that there is now sufficient processing power available to the engineer's desktop to run even quite complex simulations for thousands of time steps.

Given that good progress has been made in addressing the issues of multidiscipline integration and sufficient desktop computing power, the remaining challenge for broadening the user constituency for power electronics design technologies is that of being able to address a suitably wide range of applications while achieving ease of use.

Spectrum of apps
The spectrum of applications covers a huge range of power handling requirements (milliwatts to megawatts), frequencies (DC to GHz), temperatures (-55°C to 275°C) and physical scale (µm to m). In the past, as with almost all analysis and simulation systems, the design engineer needed strong expertise and knowledge in modeling and simulation techniques as well as in the technology being modeled in order to ensure that the results represented reality with a reasonable degree of accuracy.

Now, to fully exploit the workflow benefits of an integrated suite of design tools, we need the design engineer to be confident in not only the electrical simulation at both the component and system level, but also those for the thermal and electromagnetic behaviors, as well as possibly structural aspects too. The tools therefore need to sufficiently easy to use to be handled by an engineer who is not a specialist in a particular discipline while still providing confidence in the results. There is no doubt that the leading vendors have made invested substantial effort in this aspect of integrated power electronics design and it continues to be a priority area.

For many applications, power electronics forms part of the final product and a likely significant further step in the development of power electronics design technology will be full integration with the product lifecycle management (PLM) environments in use by most large manufacturing companies.

The data volumes resulting from larger numbers of design simulations by greater numbers of engineers will put pressure on the data management capabilities of existing PLM deployments, but, in parallel with the increased accessibility of multidiscipline power electronics design tools, we are seeing a similar effort to exploit cloud and web technologies to extend the reach of PLM solutions to smaller companies. As a result there is an opportunity to move the two forward to support even better management of the power electronics design workflow.

About the author
Tony Christian has a wide-ranging experience in engineering, manufacturing, energy and IT. His early career was in technical R&D roles, after which he moved into computer-aided engineering. His subsequent roles included divisional head of the IT subsidiary of a major international engineering and construction company and leadership of teams developing and implementing state of the art manufacturing control systems at British Aerospace. More recently, Tony was a director of the UK Consulting and Systems Integration Division of Computer Sciences Corporation (CSC), leading a consulting and systems practice for manufacturing industries, and then Services and Technology Director at AVEVA Group plc where he was responsible for all product development and the company's worldwide consulting and managed services business.

Tony has a BSc degree (Mechanical Engineering) and MSc degree (Engineering Acoustics, Noise and Vibration) from the University of Nottingham.

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