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August 29, 2016

Does the Internet of Things mean that analog electronics is on the way out?

Steve Roberts
Technical Director, RECOM Engineering GmbH

Power Channels: Communications Power, Digital Power

The hype surrounding the Internet of Things (IoT) is now reaching fever pitch. According to a model of modern technology evolution, it will soon hit the "peak of inflated expectations" before descending into the "trough of disillusionment" and finally levelling out to the "plateau of productivity". We know that we have reached the inflated expectations peak when we read comments like; "The Internet of Things will transform everything - in the future, the next generations will look at us and wonder how we ever survived our "dumb" homes". Considering that millions of people in the world make it through their lives quite satisfactorily without even the benefit of electricity, we can see how rash such comments are.

A more level-headed commentator on the recent surge of questionable IoT products - such as plant pots that send SMS messages, feeding bottles that monitor your baby's milk intake and fridges that inform you that they are empty - questions whether people are really that lazy or unobservant to realize that their plants are dry, their baby is full or that they need to buy more beer. The same commentator more realistically suggests that about 4% of the current IoT proposals will actually turn out to be useful. Nevertheless, those few products that do succeed will be very profitable, hence the excitement in the electronics industry over IoT.

The corollary concept to IoT is that everything will be dominated by digitally interconnected devices with local and group intelligence, thus the future will be binary, not analog. Any traditionally analog function will be successively replaced by its digital equivalent; all sensors will transmit their information directly as digital data, any analog signals will be filtered by DSPs and "dumb" analog power supplies will be exchanged for digital power supplies that can intelligently adapt themselves to the load conditions. The expectation is that soon analog electronics will no longer be relevant in the modern world – the end of analog electronics as we know it.

However, analog electronics is not going to go away. We live in the real world, not a digital simulation of it. After all, at the most basic level, all electronics is analog and digital is just fast analog. What is on a sharp growth curve is mixed-signal electronics; microprocessors with on-board operational amplifiers, PWM generators and ADC's, for example. Real world voltages and currents often exceed the 3.3V limits of most digital circuitry and their micro-amp supplies - and as long as there is a need for analog-to-digital and digital-to-analog interfaces, there will always be a need for analog electronics. This is doubly true for power electronics as there is no such thing as a digital switch.

In a recent interview, the CEO of one of the larger power supply manufacturers stated that the future for his company lies in power modules with digital control and digital feed-back and that consequently he was diverting resources away from analog design. This may be a good strategy for higher power units where the expectations for exceptional efficiency, high power factor and a fast response to dynamic loads can hardly be reached using non-digital control systems any more, but all power supplies have performance artefacts that arise from analog interactions – whether it be simply the inductance of the cabling, unwanted  cross coupling between components or stray leakage capacitances, not to mention the complex layered EMC interference signals that many digital simulations do not or cannot take into account. As long as the heart of any power supply is the transformer, then analog electronics will still be at the center of power supply design.

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