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APEC 2011

I spent the afternoon on the exposition floor at APEC to see what is going in digital power. In particular, I was looking for general purpose technology that would help in building isolated digital controlled switch mode power supplies. In particular, I was interested in technology to roll your own controller. Maxim showed a state controlled offering, but unless you have $$$ in your hand, high volume in your pocket, and a gold pen to sign an NDA, all you could do was see a couple of waveforms and come back in Q3 to get a data sheet.

The platforms that were on display were:

  • TI's Piccolo Real Time CPU
  • Microchip's dsPIC
  • Microsemi's SmartFusion
  • Cypress' PSoC 5

Piccolo is a 32 bit real time microcontroller with a 150ps resolution PWM, 12 ADC, comparators, I2C, Flash, control law accelerator, floating point, complex math, etc. Pricing is about $3. dsPIC is a 16 bin digital signal controller with 10/12 bit ADC, DACs, I2C, PWM, Flash, MAC, etc. Pricing is similar to Piccolo.

Both of these offerings are basically a microcontroller with support for digital control applications. Microchip ran one of the educational sessions and pointed out that a CPU designed for digital control had to have optimized IO and timer system to minimize delay from the sample and hold to ADC, through the compensator to the PWM. The pipeline is about 4uS. It seemed clear that with this delay, feedforward mechanisms are pretty normal. They also touted their flexible PWM that could be configured in many different ways. I have not looked at Piccolo's PWM architecture, but this would be something to look at in addition to the total delay. Both the Piccolo and dsPIC have pre-canned libraries that can do PID or similar analog control techniques digitally, but one can go pure digital.

SmartFusion has an ARM microcontroller, an programmable analog with ADC, DAC, current monitors, temp monitors, comparators, and FPGA. The guy doing booth duty said that customers like it because they can roll their own PWM in the FPGA and play other tricks to differentiate their end products. The drawback is if you don't want to make your own PWM, your a bit stuck. (Note that you will not find these on the Microsemi site, you have to use the Actel site. You would think that a key word search on the Microsemi site would find SmartFusion, but no...) Microsemi indicated that there are a dozen or so new designs using SmartFusion, which released 9-12 months ago, so this is new stuff. Pricing is $40-$50. Perhaps that is why there are so few customers. However, given the price of FPGAs, this price makes some sense, just don't use it in a low cost SMPS.

The PSoC5 is a general purpose PSoC, but there is also a PowerPSoC, the PowerPSoC has PWMs and a Hysteretic controller. The block diagram does not show any CPU. Looks like a building block system for simple stuff like LED lighting applications. The PSoC5 has a PWM and some digital blocks. The basic blocks seem to support digital control. Pricing on the PSoC5 is not available yet, or at least I could not find any prices, and the datasheet is marked preliminary. Development kits seem to be for sale on the Cypress website. Older PSoC prices are in $5 range. I'll guess these are in the $10+ range.

It was quite clear who was tuned in when it came to digital control. It was clearly Microchip. They taught a digital control seminar. They were totally excited about dsPIC applications and had real advice about design tradeoffs and performance. TI was promoting a broad offering and not focused specifically on digital control. Microsemi did not have anyone in the booth that deeply understood it. Cypress was asleep at the wheel. (Maxim was peeing their paths over their new chip, but no details or datasheet. Just a "trust me, this is so cool", all though it might be a one trick pony.)

My take, without a deep dive into these device's capabilities, is that Microchip and TI are probably the most worth looking into as SPMS controllers. Microsemi's offering is quite new, there are not very many customers, so it will be hard to leverage any experience outside Actel. Cypress is a wild card, but if they are not engaged at APEC, it is hard to take them serious.

One could also use an FPGA with MAC, such as the Spartan 3e, but that is probably much more work, and they are not cheap. I'm betting the dsPIC would be fun to play with and will probably buy a starter kit and play around.


PCamp Austin 2010

Just finished PCamp Austin 2010. What an experience!

I heard several people comment that it was as good as any traditional conference, but the price was right: free. However, it is not free, it just does not have a fee. The conference depends on sponsors and volunteers. The facility at the AT&T center is as good as you will get. While the facility at Yahoo was great, the AT&T conference center has a main hall that is a room separated from the building entrance and registration area. With less distractions from passers by, the quality of the presentation in the main area was better.

PCamp Austin started under Bar Camp, but they are now a 501(c) and will hold elections. As a non-profit they can now run donations through the organization's accounts instead of personal bank accounts. The committee behind the event is very well organized.

This PCamp was run a little differently that Silicon Valley PCamp. All the voting occurred on site, as opposed to pre-voting online. From an organizational point of view this means the team had to very quickly take the vote tally and then organize the schedule near real time. The final meeting where feedback was taken made clear that how the sessions are categorized and scheduled matters, because people had trouble deciding what sessions to attend and the possibility for disappointment if the "hot" sessions all occur at the same time.

PCamp now wants to grow. It is already over 200 attendees, so they have a large community to draw on for volunteers. They are planning a two in a box method of brining in new volunteers. PCamp also has PCamp Potlucks where they run a 3 hour evening event. When talking to one of the presenters about how to get PCamp started in Denver, they suggested starting with the smaller Potluck event with 6 sessions and two rooms. The reduced scale would provide an opportunity to learn at a smaller scale. I think it could even run at a smaller scale of three sessions in one room. The take away is that even though an un-conference is simple to understand, it still requires a fair amount of organization to pull it off, and to pull off a big event the first time carries a lot of risk, or a very dedicated team of 4-8 people.

There was less interest in Agile and more focus on strategy, pricing, and traditional PM issues, compared to Silicon Valley PCamp. There were also far less techies. This changed the dynamics, giving the conference a more business feeling, in a traditional sense. Like the Silicon Valley PCamp, there were plenty of consultants at hand, many giving presentations. However, the presentation that won best presenter was not a polished consultant, he worked for Dell.

The sessions I attended where:

  • Value in Use Analysis for Product Pricing and Marketing
  • Total Vision
  • How to Get Buy In for Strategic Product Decisions
  • Sizing, Segmenting, and Forecasting Markets
  • Product Management - Start With the Story
  • PM Becomes Strategic Asset, and What It Means For You

I posted my session notes HERE.

I took video of the morning kick off and the closing meeting. The kick off was about introducing how things would run, what the values of the conference where, logistics, etc. The last meeting was for voting on best presenter and best presentation and feedback. Following the event, everyone wandered to the bar across the street to socialize and network. The videos are a very useful learning tool. Anyone interested in viewing them should let me know. Perhaps I can post them to YouTube at some point.

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