Thursday, April 26, 2007

Solar and wind solutions, micro fuel cells as energy alternatives

Precisely! That's the way the future of energy would likely be, should the industry manage to pull it off. These folks are really working hard to develop alternative energy sources to power a whole lot of equipment and devices.

The other day, we were discussing energy, when the subject of fuel cells cropped up. With electronics items and other equipment constantly undergoing design changes, thereby putting even more demand on battery power. Several alternative energy solutions are constantly being developed.

In fact, Motorola reports to have successfully conducted a year-long wind- and solar-powered cell site at its Swindon R&D facility in the UK. The trial concluded that an optimized solar and wind solution can generate enough power to drive a mid-sized base station (BTS) plus ancillaries. The next step would be a commercial customer trial using a six-carrier BTS cell site, being implemented in the first half of 2007.

I believe, nearly all mobile phone manufacturers, including Motorola, are also developing solar-powered handsets.

Coming back to power, the existing battery chemistries are constantly challenged to maintain performance levels or maybe, extend beyong the existing levels. While solar and wind solutions are among the options, fuel cells and even micro fuel cells are also in the fray.

Now, Frost & Sullivan's report titled World Micro Fuel Cell Market for Industrial Portable Devices, finds that the market is likely to produce 75 million units by 2013, demonstrating a high market growth rate due to a ramp-up in commercialization. The micro fuel cell market for industrial portable devices has gained a boost with the significant growth of the heavy-duty device markets.

The report says that fuel cells for such devices should be able to operate safely for long periods under inclement weather and dusty conditions. They must be resistant to high shock and vibration, while surviving drops on hard surfaces as well.

The market is addressing the fuel cell standard concern by forming groups within prominent international standards organizations such as the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), dealing with electrical, electronic and related technologies.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Wherever you may roam!

I recall editing an article of this name during my days at DiSyCom, way back in late 1994. Those were the early days of cellular/mobile telephony in India. At a seminar on mobility at the Taj Palace in New Delhi in early 1995, I had the first-hand experience to learn what roaming was all about, thanks to a nice gentleman from the ITU.

Today, 13 years down the road, roaming is hardly the subject to discuss. People take it for granted that if they are carrying a mobile phone, they MUST be roaming. Its also one of the safest bets for operators to make money.

I recall, in December 2002, in Hong Kong, some colleagues from India were unable to call home as they weren't on roaming, and I had to lend them my phone to call. On the contrary, I was once stuck in Munich as I wasn't on roaming and couldn't call, and had to seek help from a 'friend' at the airport.

Of course, I've noticed in places across the Asia Pacific, such as Hong Kong, China, Taiwan and Singapore, that people buy local SIM cards in order to save on roaming costs. Even I've done the same on several occasions.

Today, we have come a long, long way as far as mobility is concerned. Soon, video roaming or the ability to make video calls, while roaming, would be upon us. I wonder how people would take to that experience! Also, it'd be interesting to see how the operators charge consumers on video calls and especially, video roaming.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

New developments in FPGAs, EDA

Couple of announcements today caught one's eye! The first was GateRocket Inc.'s announcment of the availability of its Device Native verification product that gives the designers of FPGAs (field programmable gate arrays) the power to validate designs with one to two orders of magnitude faster simulation, and realize actual device behavior early in the design process.

Its RocketDrive is a hardware and software solution that adds significant value to existing design verification environments without a change in design flow or verification methodology.

GateRocket’s software allows the verification engineer to place any portions of the FPGA design into the RocketDrive and link it to his or her existing simulation platform. This allows the FPGA to be used natively to speed verification by replacing FPGA models with actual hardware, investigate hardware bugs and test alternatives, and run application level software against a Device Native representation of the design.

The other announcement was from Synopsys, who announced the availability of the latest release of its Design Compiler synthesis solution, Design Compiler 2007.

The new release extends topographical technology to accelerate design closure for designs utilizing advanced low-power and test techniques, boosting designers' productivity and IC performance.

Topographical technology allows designers to accurately estimate a chip’s power consumption during synthesis and address any power issues early in the design cycle. Moreover, topographical technology supports new test compression technology in Design Compiler 2007 to achieve high test quality while reducing test time and test data volume by more than 100x. This alleviates potential wire-routing congestion later during routing due to test implementation.

Topographical technology also delivers tight correlation between performance results seen during synthesis and what is achieved after layout. This eliminates the need for time-consuming iterations between RTL synthesis and physical layout to achieve design closure.

Those interested to know more can log on to the company pages via this blog posting.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Shake-up for Internet radios?

My good friend, Steven Yang, informed me this morning about a certain development happening in the realm of Internet radios.

He told me that there's been quite a shake to the market. Song royalties are jumping three-fold, which is going to increase the cost of operation so high that most stations will be forced to shut down.

The new royalty fee takes effect in September, but stations are already shutting down daily. Stephen pointed me to a noteworthy article on USA Today that speaks about all of this. The URL is pasted below for those interested.

Now, it'll be interesting to see how makers of portable Internet radios ride this so-called storm.

And, thanks Steven!

Impact of RoHS

If any one of you has had the opportunity of attending any major electronics trade show across the Asia Pacific region, you cannot remain untouched by the impact that the RoHS (removal of hazardous substances) directive has had on suppliers.

The RoHS directive, which aims to restrict the level of hazardous substances used within new electronic and electrical equipment in the European Union (EU), is said to have had a "huge effect" on the industry so far, according to an expert.

It reminds me of a discussion I had with Man Yue, said to the seventh largest supplier of aluminum electrolytic capacitors late last year. Now Man Yue is huge and has the capability to invest in the expensive machinery required for RoHS.

Man Yue's competitive edge is strengthened by its compliance with RoHS. It has been RoHS compliant since Q2-2004. The supplier had placed orders for ICPE-9000 machine, which was scheduled for delivery by end of 2006. This machine grinds the capacitor into powder and checks for banned substances.

The spokesman told me Man Yue has a RoHS lab as well. Man Yue has four XRF machines. It was planning to purchase the GCMS-QP2010 Plus, another high-end testing machine, which checks for banned substances. It will purchase the UVmini-1240 machine as well.

Now, I understand that investing in such machinery needs substantial amount of capital. Having seen suppliers across Asia Pac at close up, I hope many have managed to make the transition to buying and maintaining expensive machinery to check for banned substances.

I haven't seen any leading articles on RoHS in India so far. However, I'm sure that the Indian manufacturers of electronics products have also made the shift.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Pressing need to protect IP

Now that India's semicon policy is in place, it is necessary for India to focus on protecting IP.

Speaking at the CEO Conclave during the VLSI Conference on the topic: Making your IP viable--attracting Investments, Anil Hirani, managing partner, Majumdar & Co. and Ravindra, chief risk officer, ICICI Ventures, said most technology companies did not stress much on important documents like term sheet before, while raising venture capital or going in for private equity. A lot of them do not involve professionals in the key stage, which could easily avoid complications or issues later.

While preference shares were the norm in the United States, in the Indian scenario, most preferred equity shares, as it gave them additional protection and rights as a shareholder under the Indian companies Law. Also, debentures as an instrument, was not used that often, but was likely to be used more in the future. Voting rights was a key area of challenge as most funds and private equity firms came in as minority stakeholders.

Pricing or valuation had also become the biggest challenge. Many deals were falling apart over the differences on valuation. The price dynamics was primarily due to a resurgent stock market and a buoyant economy.

The AIM market of London had become the preferred route for medium and smaller companies trying to access the market, as entry barriers were low and regulations were not as stringent as the US where the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX) had made listing an onerous and expensive process. Further, companies did not place adequate emphasis on proper record keeping and compliance, which later led to issues when a due diligence was conducted.

According to them, IP was the biggest challenge today and companies must take steps to protect it with every employee. There had been a growing interest in the sector what with global investors and arms of global venture funds being present in India.

Low-cost mobile broadband access for all

Today, the cell phone has become a commodity, a comman man's device. In India, especially in the metros, it is hard to find someone not carrying a cell phone. It has become so convenient to use one.

Imagine what it used to be a decade back. Cell phone prices were very high as were the call charges. Today, the story has reversed. It has been well established that Wireless is the most cost-effective way to bridge the digital divide.

Higher prices of handsets were posing a barrier to growth in developing countries. This has changed considerably since. Lowering of handset prices has ensured that the maximum growth has been in the developing countries.

However, more needs to be done as the rural-urban 'digital' divide is still significant. We first heard of ultra low-cost US $40 handsets a couple of years back. These were developed to lower the entry barrier in developing countries and to connect the unconnected.

We also saw US $30 handsets come into the fray. And now, low-cost 3G handsets are starting to do the rounds.

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the operators, the handset vendors and their partners -- all need to be congratulated for having done such commendable work.

However, more needs to be done to truly make low-cost access available to all. ITU has recommended in its paper that low-cost 3G handsets "would create economies of scale for handset makers and their component suppliers. It would also make third-generation mobile services accessible to a much wider user base. The handsets will be available at a wholesale price about 30 percent less than the typical entry-level 3G phone and fully-competitive with the multimedia second-generation handsets on sale today."

This will happen eventually. And, when it does, these low-cost 3G handsets would become affordable mobile broadband devices for the masses. This would be the first step toward providing true mobile broadband low-cost access for all!

Sunday, April 15, 2007

China Sourcing Fair and Global Sources

First of all, it feels great to be back after having been on the road. I didn't know so many folks were missing me... am overwhelmed. Some friends and associates I believe, went overboard trying to find out where I was and why wasn't I writing. To all these well wishers, thanks a lot! It sure feels good to be back.

There are a lot of topics on my mind that I would like to write about. Before anything else, my mind goes back to Hong Kong for a while. A former employer, Global Sources, just completed the Spring edition of the Electronics & Components China Sourcing Fair at the sprawling Asiaworld Expo in Hong Kong.

I have been part of this event in the recent past, having covered the show extensively and also judging the New Products Gallery during the Spring and Autumn Shows last year (2006). I'm sure, my former team-mates in Hong Kong did a great job in selecting the products for the New Products Gallery.

The show this time around was huge, as usual, and very well attended. I know, all of my ex-colleagues and friends gave their 200 percent to make this show a success. My congratulations to all of them.

I have tremdous self-respect and self-belief, and if one company helped me bring these qualities out in abundance, it has been Global Sources. Thank you!

Finally, here's a picture from the last year's CSF from the team dinner. All of you are great guys, and God bless.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

Increasing efficiency with power MOSFETs

The electronics manufacturing segment is being constantly pushed to pursue increasing the power efficiency. The power MOSFET has been successful in supporting such moves.

High-voltage end >200V power MOSFETs were said to be driven by the power supply, lighting and motor drive markets. The mid-voltage range from >30 to 200V focused on the automotive and telecom markets, and the low-voltage products were driven by portable and computer markets.

According to Zetex Semiconductors, trends driving the demand for MOSFETs included portable applications that focus on smaller size, increased power density, increased functionality and longer battery life; more generally, the increasing demand for efficient DC-DC conversion to support the numerous voltage rails required in today’s systems; growth in LCD panel market requiring MOSFETs for driving CCFL backlight; the need for higher performance and efficient cooling systems cooling (DC Fans); and the move toward switching amplifiers for audio.

As the electronics market was being pushed to increase power efficiency, driven by governments’ legislation for energy conservation, the MOSFET developments to support this initiative were following two main tracks.

One was the shrinking of geometries to enable smaller packaging and higher power densities, and the other was the process and geometry optimization to improve the switching performance. A move to leadless packaging was a parallel activity to support higher power densities.

The need to drive MOSFETs at higher frequency to improve efficiency in power conversion applications and reduce system size was setting challenges for driving MOSFETs. Despite being voltage driven, in order to switch a power MOSFET at high speed requires high current to charge and discharge the gate capacitance.

This is currently an area of focus for Zetex. As a provider of leading-edge bipolar transistors, the supplier offers products that offer high drive current capability in very compact packages.

Keke Ke of Mainland based Guangdong Kexin added that electronic manufacturers were making efforts on decreasing the power dissipation and increasing efficiency, which calls for MOSFET to provide lower RDS (on) to decrease power dissipation. Meanwhile, gate charge and ratio of gate charge should be lowered to reduce conduction loss and switching loss to further increase efficiency.

Demand mostly emanted from portable products for smaller packaging of components. Kexin rolled out a variety of MOSFETs packaged by horizontal pin SOT-723 having the packaging size of 1.2x0.8x0.5mm. Such new packaging made use of PCB’s 1.44mm2 area and can increase the ratio of silicon/packaging area to decrease the power dissipation.

Kexin’s TSSOP-8 production line has been put into use. Compared with SOP-8, it can perform smaller packaging size. E.g., one TSSOP-8 component is up to SOP-8 in terms of performance, but its packaging size is only 25 percent of the SOP-8’s.

(Picture with the report is of Fuyong, Shenzhen, where I'd the pleasure of having lunch with my friends Simon Wang and Edmund. Don't have Kexin's image!)

Take care of thermal distribution for higher-layer PCBs

This is an extension to an earlier piece on the subject. During my various meetings in Hong Kong, I found Johnny Keung, deputy general manager, Circuitone, as a very good resource for discussing PCB services.

He described that immersion tin was economical, complied with RoHS, could replace immersion gold, and go fine line width. Circuitone offers 4µx4µ line width. As for spacing, it can go down to 3µ spacing.

The board size can be limited by equipment. Circuitone has equipment that handles 24x24inch board sizes. It can also offer 0.003” line width (3µx3µ) for high-density PCBs in large volumes. It offers minimum hole-width of 0.2mm, and plans to offer 0.1mm hole-width by Q4-07. This is indeed significant.

There had been some reports in the trade press regarding some Mainland Chinese PCB fabricators offeing 20- and even 40-layer PCBs.

Keung said there were two benchmarks. One, switching from double-sided to four layers, and two, switching from four layers to six layers.

He pointed out that Circuitone could use technology from six layers up to 20 layers. If it went beyond 20 layers, for example, 22 layers, there may be difficulties with thermal distribution within the board.

As I understand from our discussions, for up to 20 layers or so, heat distribution was on the top layer of the PCB, while distribution across middle layer could be uneven. Layers at the bottom could experience higher heat transfer than those in the middle.

Even PCB pressing is done in two stages: one, increase heat so the bonding sheet started to melt, and two, if temperature kept increasing, the glue was transformed into solid. This was the final curing stage.

Commenting on 40-layer PCBs, Keung commented that those boards at the outer layer would likely start melting, and those at the core layer would be in solidstate. When heat was being transferred into core layer, the evenness of distribution changed. The outer layer would remain in solidstate as well. So, expansion/contraction could get uneven, and registration could be a big challenge.

Fabricators should definitely look into this aspect, before designing higher-layer PCBs. I believe, some research work has been done by PCB makers to develop higher-layer PCBs. We discussed the yield rate earlier. That has to rise.

Adding layers on multilayer PCBs

Multilayer PCBs (ML-PCBs) are used for a whole range of applications, such as broadband routers, RF applications, set-top boxes, backpanels, keyboards and power supplies.

However, what is significant today is the number of layers that a PCB comprises. Some other issues include line width, minimum thickness, minimum hole size, surface finish -- immersion gold/silver/tin, lead-free, flash gold, HAL, OSP, etc.

The variety offered by PCB fabricators is indeed stagggering. Consider Introlines. It offers PCBs with line width of 0.08mm and minimum thickness 0.1mm, and minimum hole size 0.2mm.

PCBs come in surface finishes such as lead-free, flash gold, HAL, OSP, etc. Among immersion gold/silver/tin, gold is said to be more popular.

Another point to be noted is how many of the PCBs are RoHS compliant. We don't yet discuss RoHS extensively in India, but those following the industry know exactly how important RoHS has become. About 70 percent of Introlines' PCBs are RoHS compliant.

Main applications for TC Intn’l's ML-PCBs include audio/video, automotive, home appliances, industrial applications and power supplies. The ability to offer low-mix, high-volume boards provides TC Int'l with a competitive advantage.

TC Int’l can offer ML-PCBs with line spacing of 4mil (0.1mm), line width of 0.1mm, finished hole size of 0.2mm and via diameter of 0.2mm. Plating is offered in Ni/Au, immersion gold and lead-free HAL. Immersion silver finish would soon be offered, in fact, from this year onward.

More layers on the PCB, design changes (higher layer count as against lower layer points), and low-mix/high-volume product lines are said to be the emerging trends.
TC Intn’l handles nickel/gold plating, immersion gold, Entek, V-cut, etc. It uses SMT and fine line 4/4mil line width spacing techniques. Surface finishing is taken care of by HAL, lead-free HAL, selective gold plating, OSP or preflux coating (Entek), etc.

TC Intn’l plans to add immersion silver after listing on the HKSE, which is by 2007. The supplier is also targeting CE, automobile and computer peripheral segments.

Tyson produces ML-PCBs up to 10 layers. It maintains line width of 3µ for ML-PCBs. For developing ML-PCBs above 10 layers, it will use special drilling machines with X-ray feature to target the right hole to drill. Tyson’s ML-PCBs are targeted at applications such as GPS, mobile phones, remote controls and Bluetooth chipsets.

United Talent offers SS/DS, rigid and ML-PCBs ranging from four to 16 layers. It provides surface finishes in HAL, Entek, lead-free HASL, and immersion gold/silver/tin.

Coming to the number of layers, TC Intn'l offers ML-PCBs up to 12 layers. It had done trial runs for 10- and 12-layers. Feedback from customers had been encouraging.

TC Intn’l uses FR-1/FR-4 as board materials. For SS-PCBs, it uses base laminates such as XPC, FR1/2, CEM-1/3, FR4, etc. For DS-PCBs, it uses CEM-3 and FR4. For ML-PCBs, it uses FR4. Over 95 percent of its products are lead free.

TC Intn’l has machines for pressing PCBs for higher layers. Mass lamination is used for up to 12 layers, and pin lamination for above 12 layers. Suppliers can also use pin-lamination machines for 24-layer boards.

TC Intn’l offers 4µx4µ line width and spacing. The need for higher-layer PCBs was tight, especially for military, ATC and communications. Yield rate was not very high, and there was more wastage/scrap rate. The 3µx3µ line width was a niche market.

This point has to be noted, especially by fabricators looking to develop higher layer ML-PCBs as the yield rate is of immense importance.