Combatting challenges & changing the market: in conversation with Vicor
01 December 2022
EPDT Editor, Mark Gradwell interviews power component specialist, Vicor’s Henryk Dabrowski, Vice President, Sales, EMEA (Europe, Middle East & Africa).
This interview was originally featured in the December 2022 issue of EPDT magazine [read the digital issue]. And sign up to receive your own copy each month.
1. What are Vicor’s strengths within the power industry?
Vicor’s primary strengths are innovating around the integration of novel power circuit topologies and architectures – and with breakthrough manufacturing and assembly. It’s not enough to excel at one or the other; to achieve leadership, we must leverage both. We have always sought improvement by using technologies like zero current switching and zero voltage switching, and by focusing on smaller magnetic and capacitive components, using higher switching frequencies into the megahertz range. Smaller components allow higher power density, which means we have had to be creative with thermal management. Our planar packaging yields tremendous cooling benefits.
Our manufacturing approach is analogous to how semiconductor companies produce chips on a wafer. Instead of a wafer, we use a PCB (printed circuit board), which we call a panel, that is a standard size for all our products. We then replicate multiple instances of a product on a panel, after which we over-mould, plate and then singulate the panel into individual modules. As we develop smaller power modules, we can produce more modules on a single panel and reduce the cost per component accordingly. At the same time, the smaller modules have higher power density, so we achieve both lower cost and higher performance. Bringing this concept into the power industry has distinguished our product lines and established our enduring leadership position for high performance power modules.
In addition to circuit topologies and manufacturing, we have established leadership by bringing innovation to system-level power architectures. Using intermediate bus architectures and our own Factorized Power Architecture (FPA) has opened doors to many high-growth markets, such as data centres and automotive, because we can deliver better performance in a smaller form factor than conventional industry norms.
Our unique Sine Amplitude Converter technology has an inherent capability to handle extreme currents in demanding applications, such as powering high performance AI (artificial intelligence) processors or replacing heavy duty batteries in electric vehicles (EVs). Stepping down from high voltages, such as 800V and 400V, to 48V or lower, with high efficiency, becomes the new norm when using Vicor’s high performance power conversion modules, which is becoming increasingly essential for UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles), EVs & hybrid vehicles, and robotics, delivering significant improvements to system efficiencies and thermal management.
2. There is a worldwide component shortage currently impacting many companies. How is Vicor managing this challenge to continue servicing customers?
The current situation is extremely tough for everyone. We are fortunate to have our own manufacturing capacity. We recently made significant investments in our production facility and added even more capacity to deliver on current demand and support our ongoing growth into the future. Having our own manufacturing capacity means we can focus on sourcing the raw materials that we need, with far-reaching supplier agreements extending several years in some cases. We work closely with our customers and channel partners to ensure that we are able to deliver to their most critical needs in a timely manner. We are also accelerating ongoing efforts to improve our internal systems and processes to achieve operational excellence. What we’ve learned from the past two years will make us even stronger for years to come.
3. Vicor celebrated the opening of a new power module manufacturing facility – its ChiP fab – early this year in Andover, Massachusetts, USA. What makes this facility so innovative?
Yes, the new 90,000 sq ft plant opened in May this year (2022) and facilitates our innovative manufacturing approach. We have increased our manufacturing floor space by 45% to accommodate our ChiP (‘Converter Housed in Package’) products, that are made with panels (similar to semiconductor wafers, as we discussed earlier). Not only did we expand our capacity, but we brought key process steps in-house, making our operations fully vertically integrated and giving us greater manufacturing control and capacity.
Our factory makes extensive use of automation and robotics technology, and our smart manufacturing techniques have built-in redundancy for even greater operational reliability.
The plant is also close to our design engineers, so we can maintain fast communications to both address any issues quickly and to foster further innovation.
4. In terms of R&D, what are the main issues that Vicor engineers are working on?
We focus on many fast-growing markets that require power dense components. For example, we are working with several automotive OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) to help electrify their fleets. We also are powering data centres, AI applications, robotics, UAVs and communication satellites. We are often called upon to solve challenging power designs that other vendors cannot.
We have stayed several steps ahead of our competitors by anticipating customer needs at the architecture level. Of course, we’re looking at new technologies for integration into our components to achieve further improvements and higher efficiency. But we’re also working with customers to develop new architectures and packaging technologies that unlock the potential of their innovations.
We’re very proud of our R&D (research & development) group and we continue to invest heavily in R&D to support our future growth.
5. Where do you see the key growth markets in Europe – and what are the trends in these sectors?
Vicor has several target markets, but we see our key growth markets as automotive, computing and space/satellites – though, we’re also strong in some areas of the broader industrial market such as ATE (automated test equipment), battery formation and robotics. The trends we’re seeing vary in each sector, as you might expect.
Let’s start with automotive: we’re finding that OEMs are racing to electrify their fleets, which is a daunting task. There is a nearly 20x increase in power needed for BEVs (battery electric vehicles), and those electronics take up space and add considerable weight. However, OEMs are looking to significantly reduce vehicle weight to lower costs and achieve higher efficiency, greater range and reduce emissions – all for our benefit!
Another trend which is very prominent in the automotive sector is EV battery re-use. Batteries from EVs can be repurposed for ‘second life’ applications, such as powering forklifts or reserve power for residential homes. As companies strive to deliver greener and more sustainable products and services, we expect this to become a huge part of the market cycle.
Moving to computing, we’re finding that edge computing is following the same patterns as high performance computing (HPC) in data centres. In addition to more power being needed to support the growing computational demands in edge, fog and centralised applications, power demand is also increasing to improve security as the IoT (internet of things) develops.
AI, machine learning and edge computing are pushing processors to require high current levels that are thousands of Amps, higher than have ever been seen before in computing. Fortunately, Vicor’s success with high-performance processors translates directly to edge computing, where our power converters can deliver extremely high currents in a small space.
Reducing energy consumption in data centres and at the edge also continues to be vitally important. Power dense and efficient power modules help to reduce energy losses, even with air-cooling due to the use of thermally adept packaging.
Finally, when looking at satellite applications, we’re seeing that communications infrastructure is insufficient to support the insatiable global demand for reliable high-speed broadband connectivity. That gap is fuelling the rapid design, development and deployment of low-earth-orbit (LEO) and medium-earth-orbit (MEO) communications satellite constellations. This ‘new space’ growth, projected at 20x over the next 10 years, requires high-density power to keep pace.
One major hurdle are the competing requirements for shrinking satellite size while concurrently improving throughput. One of the most difficult problems to solve is powering advanced, high-current communications ASICs (application-specific integrated circuits). With the increasing quantity of satellites in these constellations, another major challenge is collision avoidance. The speed and trajectory of these satellites requires complex AI to avoid colliding with other satellites in nearby orbits. To achieve this leap in throughput demand, satellite power designers must deliver 20x to 30x more current to the load than legacy systems can provide, while simultaneously reducing the size, weight and cost of the power delivery network. These requirements will forever be at odds and will continue to escalate in the foreseeable future.
6. Vicor serves customers across Europe. How has it built up a network of distributors to serve all of these customers?
Vicor has been working with distributors in Europe for over 30 years, and our strategy is to have a scalable, uniform approach to channel engagement to unify distribution across different areas. We are working with distributors who operate on a global scale to ensure that we can supply to all areas of Europe and provide a consistent service to all our customers.
We have a comprehensive network of distributors, which are a critical part of our relationship with customers and we view our distribution partners as key to Vicor’s growth. Obviously, working with such large global distribution organisations, we cannot expect all their employees to be experts in Vicor technology. So, we have embarked on a dedicated channel training programme, in which we identify the key people interfacing with customers at project level, and provide them with unique customised training, written specifically for their particular job requirements.
We have a symbiotic relationship with distributors; they need Vicor to help grow their power business and Vicor needs them to use their European networks to distribute to customers.
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