Do Modern Tools Make Agile Power Design Possible?

February 6, 2018
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An agile approach to software development was first popularized by the Manifesto for Agile Software Development, written in 2010, and today most software development teams use an agile framework. Agile software development is a process where requirements and solutions evolve during the project, with the developer creating cross-functional teams that work closely with end users throughout the project. An agile approach will deliver a first-pass product early and then make it evolve through the development process with a goal of continual improvement. One of the key benefits of agile development is the ability to respond to change.

Having worked with thousands of design teams around the world it’s clear that power system designers still use a waterfall approach: waiting for detailed system specifications before designing the system. This approach, where the requirements are fixed at the start of the development work is very different from the continual evolution of requirements throughout an agile project.

Our recent research found that changes in requirements after design work has started was the biggest problem for power engineers around the world, something a waterfall development approach can’t effectively deal with.

In 2011, EE Times asked: “Agile hardware development – nonsense or necessity?” The author was clearly in favor of using the new approach for hardware development, yet more than six years later the technique has had minimal impact on the power design world.  In fact, EE Times didn’t mention agile hardware development once last year.

Why Agile is More Challenging for Hardware Designers

Hardware design is very different from software. The hardware itself has a cost, whereas the cost of software is only the man-hours to develop it. This cost can be significant, particularly when designing power systems for large, complex equipment.

Hardware also has a time lag that doesn’t exist with software. It’s not a problem to recompile a complete project overnight, but to make and populate a PCB can take several weeks. These lead times are much longer than the cycles used in agile software development.

Tools: The Key to Agile Hardware Development

Today, however, the tools and techniques that are available to power engineers are more powerful than ever. It is now possible to not only architect power solutions in seconds, but the performance of these solutions can be accurately predicted without the need to actually build the hardware. Perhaps the leading examples of such tools are the Power System Designer and the PowerBench™ Whiteboard.

These new tools, and the high correlation between the predicted and real-world performance, are a game-changer for power engineers. They offer the prospect of the power system being architected and analyzed in short cycles without the need to design and manufacture a PCB. Furthermore, by using the Power Component Design Methodology, these tools also dramatically increase the likelihood of first-time success, making it much more likely that the first revision of the PCB will pass certification. By removing the time lag and cost, we finally have the prospect of an agile approach to power system development.

The flexibility of the Power Component Design Methodology and the power of online tools is already enabling flexibility for engineers using the waterfall approach, enabling developers to make changes to designs late in the process. Although this represents a huge saving in development effort and opportunity cost, at Vicor we don’t believe this is where the story ends.

Is now is the time for power engineers to move to an agile design philosophy? By using leading-edge tools, it’s possible to keep iterating the power design to meet the changing requirements of the rest of the system. If the software engineering team discovers they need a higher-performance processor, the power system can be re-architected to support the new component in minutes, allowing the project manager to understand the full impact of the change, rather than just the purchase cost of the new processor. By architecting and analyzing power systems this way, the power system designer can also build confidence in the entire design team around the performance of the power delivery system design and their decision when to move to a full hardware implementation.

We’d love to hear your opinion: please let us know how you are using online design tools to make your power development a more agile process.

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