Powering industrial systems: components, intelligence, and efficiency

By Nick Davis, Contributing Editor, EE

The manner in which industrial systems are powered is changing dramatically as the demand for power increases and, at the same time, as environmental, commercial, and legislative pressure mounts to reduce energy consumption and increase energy efficiencies. Industrial systems, such as automobile and automobile components factories, data centers (aka the cloud), and renewable energy and storage energy systems, are becoming — and must continue to be — more efficient and smarter.


Let’s take a look at factories

Welcome to Industry 4.0! Industry 4.0 — also known as the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), and Smart Manufacturing — is a term used to describe the confluence of the physical world with the cyberworld. The image below summarizes the four industrial revolutions.


Fig. 1: The four industrial revolutions. Image courtesy of LinkedIn (Kris Seeburn).


Industry 4.0 promises to deliver a more productive and efficient factory with less interaction from humans. This coming together of computers and automation allows for a cyber-physical system to monitor the physical processes of the factory and make decentralized decisions, all the while with very little input from human operators. However, for Industry 4.0 to deliver on its promises, these smart and connected factories mandate a new and better approach for powering them. Recall that whenever a high voltage is converted to a lower voltage, there will always be some energy loss due to the inefficiencies during the conversion. Given this fact, such energy losses can be reduced by (1) minimizing the number of times that a voltage must be converted and (2) decreasing the inefficiencies during such voltage conversions.


Reducing the number of occurrences for stepping down voltages is achieved, as an example, by an offering from Intersil — a semiconductor company that specializes in power management ICs. According to this article by Intersil, they are seeing an industrial trend wherein their “customers are moving to a higher voltage distribution bus. Traditionally, designers have been stepping down from a 42-V or 36-V bus to a 12-V or even an 8-V intermediate bus and then directly stepping down to the point-of-load (POL). However, those designers using a higher voltage system bus now want to eliminate the intermediate bus and convert directly from 48 V down to POL.” Based on this trend, Intersil (now a Renesas company) developed their ISL8117 — a synchronous step-down PWM controller — that allows for “the direct step-down conversion from 48 V to a 1-V POL and eliminates a DC/DC converter to save cost, improve reliability, and generate 2% to 3% higher efficiency.” Keep in mind that power losses are further reduced by simply increasing the system bus voltage and, therefore, using less current.


Fig. 2: Energy efficiencies are improved by eliminating the intermediate voltage step-down stage. Image courtesy of Intersil.


Designed to improve efficiencies during DC-to-DC conversions, Intersil’s Power Modules reduce power losses by fully integrating DC/DC buck converters in a single package. This full integration includes the converter’s controller, power FETs, output inductor, and compensation circuitry; this design approach minimizes both the external component count and the complexity of the converter design itself. An example of an Intersil Power Module is the ISL8215M, which has an adjustable output voltage along with a very high efficiency — up to 96.5%.


Improving motor controller designs is another area that’s making energy efficiency enhancements, increasing reliability, and allowing for simplified and accelerated system design times. Offering an integrated solution in a single package (referred to as a module) is the approach that ON Semiconductor has taken for achieving these goals. According to this publication from ON Semiconductor, “These modules are ‘pre-optimized’ with important issues such as EMI already addressed. And by integrating all of the semiconductor devices into a single package, thermal issues are reduced and less PCB space is required.”


Although such integrated module solutions are sometimes referred to, by the market, as Intelligent Power Modules, or IPMs, ON Semiconductor calls these modules Smart Power Modules (SPMs). And while their portfolio of Smart Power Modules are designed for low- to mid-power industrial applications, ON Semiconductor also offers a portfolio of Power Integrated Modules (PIMs), which are higher-power module solutions for industrial applications, such as industrial motor control, uninterruptible power supply (UPS), and solar inverter applications. This video from ON Semiconductor discusses both IPMs and PIMs in more detail.


Data centers and the cloud

According to Fortune.com, the energy use by data centers grew by only 4% between 2010 and 2014. This energy usage increase is, in fact, quite small when comparing it to the 24% increase that occurred between 2005 and 2010 and the whopping 90% increase between 2000 and 2005. What’s more impressive, however, is that between 2014 and 2020, the expected data center energy use will increase again by only 4%. This is actually a huge feat given the prediction that the “total server installed base is projected to increase by 40% from 2010 to 2020”, according to the Berkley Lab article titled “Data Centers Continue to Proliferate While Their Energy Use Plateaus.” This massive energy savings accomplishment occurred thanks to the efforts of giant internet companies (such as Google, Amazon, and Facebook) to stay focused on making their data centers operate more efficiently. The image below shows the total data center electricity consumption between 2000 and 2020 (prediction).


Fig. 3: Total data center electricity consumption vs. time. Image courtesy of Intersil.


If you’re wondering how these internet giants were able to save so much energy, rest assured that it wasn’t because of only one idea or a single improvement. In contrast, there were many changes — and some quite innovative — that made these sizable energy-savings accomplishments possible, including:

  • The designs of the new data centers called for the use of outside air for cooling as opposed to cooling down servers by use of power-hungry air conditioners.
  • The data centers implemented the use of energy-efficiency software.
  • Servers were specifically designed to automatically switch to a low-power state when not being heavily utilized.
  • Fewer servers are required. Thanks to servers being designed to be more powerful and much more efficient, companies have adopted server virtualization, which allows for more of each server’s total capacity to be utilized.


According to Fortune.com, a few examples of how Facebook uses imaginative ideas — although these ideas seem quite obvious now — in their Prineville, Oregon, data center include “…features such as rainwater reclamation, a solar energy installation for providing electricity to the office areas, and reuse of heat created by the servers to heat office space.”


Renewable energy and energy storage

According to the Renewable Electricity Futures Study, a study by the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), the U.S. can generate 80% of total U.S. electricity generation in 2050 “using technologies that are commercially available today, in combination with a more flexible electric system.” If the results of this study materialize, then the entire industry sector better be prepared for relying on renewable energy sources in their factories. “Being prepared” includes being ready for potential power outages. According to Texas Instruments, “Renewable energy has proven itself to be an essential source of power for years to come, but the issue of consistently delivering power all day remains.”


Enter energy storage. Using energy storage facilities, along with renewable energy sources, allows for the consistent delivery of energy even when the amount of sunlight received is diminished or when the intensity of the wind decreases or stops. According to TI’s guide for Battery Management Solutions for Energy Storage Systems, “Energy storage systems generally consist of two types of applications, emergency energy applications and grid storage applications.” TI goes on to explain that emergency energy applications require secondary power for only a minimum amount of time allowing for a set of tasks to be performed. In contrast, grid storage applications require a secondary energy source for a longer amount of time until, ideally, the primary energy source is restored.


A great example of a industrial factory taking advantage of renewable energy sources — specifically, the sun — is Tesla’s Gigafactory (see image below). According to TheVerge.com, the Gigafactory will use a roof-installed solar array capable of producing 70 megawatts of power. And according to Inc.com, the Gigafactory will have net zero emissions and carbon-neutral manufacturing. Now that’s impressive!


Fig. 4: A rendering of Tesla’s Gigafactory, which uses a 70-MW roof-installed solar array. Image courtesy of Tesla.



Whether you like it or not, the method for powering industrial systems is changing significantly. From factories, to data centers and the cloud, and to renewable energy sources and energy storage solutions, there are many forms in which we will see — and are currently seeing — these major changes play out. Such examples include the utilization of highly-efficient voltage converters and integrated power modules, implementing energy-efficiency software, and using power and battery management guides and components.

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