The shift towards higher levels of component integration is not a new trend, as I noted in a previous blog, but it has taken on increased momentum. (See: Getting Over My New Integration Fears.) There are many reasons why designers look to an integrated solution.
Before we look at those reasons, what do we mean by “integrated,” anyway? In some cases, it's a chip set comprising a set of standard and application-specific components, selected and combined by a vendor, and which work together to provide a good fit for a given application. As a result, on the hardware side:
- You no longer have to pore through websites and selection guides trying to find the “right” or “best” component for a function;
- You don't have to make sure the various ICs you've selected are compatible in signal levels, I/O, power rails, and timing;
- You get a reference design, PC board layout, and basic evaluation/exercise code, yielding hardware-related confidence;
- You don’t have generate the bill of materials (BOM) from scratch, and with purchasing asking if it is better to go with ICs from one vendor or to instead use a mix of suppliers (whichever way you go, they'll argue at the design review that it should have been the other way, I assure you).
The other kind of integration is when the vendor offers a single, larger IC, which directly incorporates many of the functions of the application (in some cases, of course, more than a single IC is needed, but you get the idea). This reduces cost and PC board footprint, and it may limit your implementation flexibility or options — but you may not care about this constraint.
Either way, whether you choose integration door #1 or #2, you hope to reduce design headaches and time to market (TTM).
Why so? Reality is that today's applications are so ambitious, with user expectations so high, and with such aggressive cost and TTM goals, that such integration is probably the only way to succeed for many designs.
Don't think I'm denigrating the efforts or outcomes of earlier generation of scientists and engineers, not at all — in fact, I stand in admiration of them. For example, in the 1950s, they were able to determine the spin moment of the electron to eight significant figures using laughingly crude instrumentation by our standards (and their first six digits are still considered correct, by the way).
But there is a major difference: these were specialty projects, not mass-market, low-cost products popped out by the tens of millions. The world of electronics has gone so far beyond the few mass-market products of that period — it was primarily five-tube AM radios and a some early monochrome TVs — that the product-design tools, techniques, and engineering approach that worked then would simply not be viable now.
Do you feel the availability of higher levels of component integration, along with the necessity of using it, makes your design task easier? Or do you think it constrains your flexibility and creativity?
Next, we will continue exploring more details of analog integration.