What do power electronics and components like power diodes, thyristors, MOSFETSs, and IGBTs have to do with the acceleration of digitalization? One might be surprised how much they impact sectors like Artificial Intelligence (AI), Internet of Things (IoT), and 3D printing. So much so, in fact, that they are leading the way to the Fourth Industrial Revolution (Industry 4.0). Power electronics play such a pivotal role in Industry 4.0 that they may be likened to such inventions as the wheel or gears, two things that helped advance civilization through the centuries.
By first summing up the current state of power semiconductor electronics, and then following with sections highlighting key technologies and advancements, readers will see how power electronics will shape the mode of production, lifestyle, and quality of life that humans will experience for at least the next 20 years.
State-of-the-Art Power Electronics Devices
One can define power electronics as those which deal with electrical power conversion, control, and switching. Power electronics often comprises solid state devices from diverse technologies such as silicon (Si), silicon carbide (SiC), and gallium nitride (GaN). In the core of power electronics lies the mechanism of controlled switching and maneuvering of a power semiconductor device, based on certain mathematical functions. The applications of power electronics are so enormously important and ubiquitous, that it is almost certain to be found in nearly every electric object surrounding us today.
Power electronic circuits include rectifiers, choppers, inverters, AC-DC/AC-AC converters and switches. The circuits are made up of power diodes, thyristors, power bipolar junction transistors (BJT), power metal oxide semiconductor field effect transistors (MOSFET), insulated-gate bipolar transistors (IGBT), laterally diffused metal oxide semiconductor field effect transistors (LDMOS), and high electron mobility transistors (HEMT).
Power electronics semiconductor devices based on Si material were developed first and utilized in widespread industrial, consumer, and scientific applications. These devices are still in use for low-end consumer applications. But these days, Si-based power diodes and transistors are no longer used in applications where high power, frequency, temperature, and reliability are required. For voltages above 100-600V, trench and super junction-based Si semiconductor devices find their usage in high-end consumer electronics and power supply systems.
For applications in heavy industrial power, drive, and high-voltage direct-current (HVDC), Si-based IGBTs are deployed in applications operating at 600-1.8kV. For applications operating between 2-3.5kV, Si-based thyristor devices can function well for relatively low to medium-end applications.
The improvement in GaN and SiC materials for micro and nano-electronics has opened new possibilities for OEMs and research institutes. Today, innovators can envision and realize applications which operate at higher voltages, currents, and frequencies, thus sustaining higher temperatures. This helps fulfill reliability requirements at excellent yield and commercially feasible prices.
SiC-based MOSFETs and IGBTs are the material of choice for medium and high voltage, power, and high-performance power devices. Similarly, GaN-based power devices can operate at much higher frequency bands for 5G applications with higher efficiency, power, and performance compared to traditional Si-based LDMOS devices.
Green Energy Infrastructure
In the second decade of this century, the necessity of environmentally friendly and efficient energy infrastructure is obvious. Harnessing energy from wind turbines, solar parks, and eco-friendly power generation stations is now preferred. With end use cases of electric vehicle (EV) charging and automated industry robots used on a continual basis—not to mention round the clock powering of smart cities—very careful planning based on energy storage technologies is a necessity. Elaborate system design based on power electronics building blocks such as rectifies, inverters, and semiconductor switches is crucial.
Power electronics used at renewable energy harvesting sources and on the consumer level have made new innovations in energy supply a staple for this power-driven society. The need for medium and high voltage Si IGBTs and SiC-based power diodes, transistors, convertor and invertor modules is now an absolute necessity. Without these devices, renewable energy generation, distribution, energy storage, and drives cannot be realized.
In addition to the power demand scenarios listed above, a new one has arisen that seems straight out of a science fiction book or off a movie theatre screen. These days, an increasing number of devices have the ability to communicate with one another. Communication systems now utilize a big electromagnetic spectrum; utilizing a mix of various technologies such as RFID tags to super base-stations...in fact, there are so many choices available that it boggles the mind.
Looking at just one means of communication, for example the mobile infrastructure, one notes how RF Power amplifier (RF PA) modules based on LDMOS and GaN technologies are the most significant power devices. RF PA is the most power-hungry device in any cellular base station transmitter design, and its efficiency, linearity, and reliability at commercially feasible prices make it all possible.
The highly efficient telecom gear not only enables cellular mobile infrastructure, but technological advancements in RF & microwave power electronics also reciprocate in continuous advancements in mobile communication, such as 5th generation of mobile communication standard of today. Furthermore, the vast chunk of available bandwidths in GHz and THz frequencies guarantees that continual improvements in nano-electronic material will allow further innovations in high frequency power electronics, inevitably leading to circuit designs for 6G and beyond.
Artificial Intelligence (AI)
Artificial Intelligence should not only be associated with algorithms, data, and computation. The ability to solve problems and perform tasks while being mobile are hallmarks of Industry 4.0. Self-driving cars, automated guided robotics, machine learning, and intelligent drive control are notable manifestations of AI. With the fusion of sensor technologies and computational prowess, power electronics play a crucial role in powering everything behind the scenes. Advanced power electronic components and modules capable of low/medium power application are an integral part of any AI-based systems for Industry 4.0. Their ability to provide reliable power supply, storage, and drive systems capable of operating at high temperatures is crucial for the latest evolution in AI.
3D Printing & Processing
While 3D printing is a hybrid process with underlying chemical and mechanical processes, the precision, control, energy supply for computation, and intelligence are all achieved by power electronics. Conditional to 3D printing objectives, low/medium or high power Si or SiC-based devices are essential for power supply and drive functions of this application.
RF & Microwave power is another way heating and controlled laser beam generation can be achieved and utilized in 3D printing systems. As our society will experience change in the coming years due to digitalization, it is certain that new techniques for 3D printing will emerge. These will not only fully utilize the capabilities of power electronics, but will also help shape the road map for advancement in LDMOS, SiC and GaN.
Many fields of application (such as autonomous cars, flying taxis for material and human transportation, automated guided vehicles for round the clock production, and service robots in homes, offices, hospitals, war fronts, etc.) rely heavily on the electrification of motion. This is due not only to the environmentally friendly nature of electrical energy utilization, but also the ease of control. More importantly, it is due to the ease of production by renewable energy.
Electrification of motion fits perfectly in an industry 4.0 scenario, which operates in a matrix-based system where warehouse and production line boundaries blur. For example, production lines for automotive cars predominantly utilize robots and automation on production lines. This strongly exhibits how entrenched robotics have become. All these intricate electric machines, produced by electrical machines in motion (i.e., robots), require a scheme of power electronics for control, drive, and recuperation. Such systems have to be simultaneously energy efficient, high performance, and reliable.
SiC-based MOSFETs and IGBT modules are already in high demand, and the market size will increase significantly in the coming future due to ongoing electrification of production lines.
Digitalization: Technological Evolution & Convergence in Industry 4.0
All applications of significant importance rely heavily on power electronics, thus justifying the notion that power electronics is a key enabler of Industry 4.0.
The advancement and convergence of multidisciplinary technologies such as data processing, data storage, AI, energy storage, material sciences, 3D printing, transportation, mechatronics, ERP systems, augmented reality, biology, etc. have increased the pace of digitalization. Self-operating, self-regulating, self-sustaining, and self-evolving systems can be expected to cover all facets of life in the upcoming industrial revolution and beyond.
One can expect that digital factories of tomorrow will produce and assemble products using robots, advanced AI, omnipresent communication, mechatronics, and sensor technology. These will all rely on an eco-friendly power infrastructure.
Things get further interesting and exciting if electronics parts in digital factories are identified and selected using intelligent human engineering analysis. They could be sourced using automated bill of material processing powered by machine learning, and then an offer generated by AI-powered algorithms can be presented. This instantaneous RFQ would provide the best price and availability for systems, and whole supply chain processes would be digitalized. This, in turn, creates a next batch of highly efficient, economical, eco-friendly and sustainable technological progress, ultimately leading to the next phase of industrial optimization and revolution.
Sourcengine does exactly this. The digitalization of the supply chain is its key differentiator from other online marketplaces. Whereas other platforms may offer quotes and lead time data, Sourcengine goes five steps beyond and allows for transaction upon quotes. As an innovative digitalization catalyst, Sourcengine is playing an important role in this ongoing acceleration of procurement needs. By enabling the availability of building blocks for Industry 4.0 (such as connectivity, processing, memory, and power electronics modules through its digital platform), and guided by a best in class field application engineering team from our partners at Sourceability (who can support customers along the journey of selection process), Sourcengine stands at the cusp of a new revolution in procurement and supply chain stability for the electronic components industry.
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