Looking ahead: Op Amps are hot and getting hotter

What a year it has been for operational amplifiers, those versatile circuits that can be hooked up to your design in hundreds of ways. Several companies have introduced upwards of 50 different op amp products in 2003 with predictions to introduce similar numbers in 2004. In just the 100+ MHz region there were more than 150 new op amp introductions from the suppliers this year.

What's behind this veritable explosion in op amps? Michael Steffes, Strategic Marketing Manager for high-speed amps at Texas Instruments thinks that many component suppliers have neglected catalog offerings because they were focusing on System-on-Chip designs and they noticed that their catalog offerings were getting lean. So many increased their efforts over the last couple years and the market is seeing the results this year and next year.

Over the last couple years National Semiconductor has released more than 35 high-speed op amps with more for next year, using its new VIP10 process technology. National thinks high-speed op amps will have significant growth potential as more products demand higher bandwidth and speed, especially for the telecommunications sector and the optical storage area. According to Erroll Dietz, Product Line Director for Amplifiers at National Semiconductor, “these technologies fit best where you have to swing large signals quickly, and that includes line drivers and laser diode drivers.”

Intersil released about 80 products in 2003 and expects to release many more for 2004. “There's a major push for op amps at Intersil,” said Simon Prutton, Director of Applications and Marketing at Intersil, “because the company has access to a new 25 GHz complementary bi-polar process. There are faster processes that can offer end products in the 2 GHz range, but once you get to 2 GHz the parasitics on the package make the application of the device very difficult to use,” said Mr. Prutton. “You no longer need an op amp once you get to 2 GHz; you need to use a fixed gain device such as a low noise amplifier (LNA), because an op amp typically needs resistors surrounding it to set the gain. As soon as you bring the signal off chip you introduce parasitics,” he said. However, all is not lost because some companies such as Analog Devices offer techniques like DigiTrim that gives the user the capability to change the offset and gain on-chip.

Regardless, Intersil's Prutton doesn't think op amps need to go faster but manufacturers must find ways to reduce power, and that's a primary focus of Intersil. The company says you will see several low-power products introduced in the next several months. One of the products recently introduced allows you to recover a signal after it has been broadcast over a very long distance of Category 5 cable. Intersil will continue focusing on op amps for video applications in the coming year and develop some application specific standard products (ASSPs) with its customers.

Another market for the coming year is for the less analog savvy designer who needs help wading through the plethora of op amps flooding the market. National Semi offers tools to help them solve analog problems without an extensive analog background. The company is working on something for the amplifier space that it will call Amplifiers Made Simple (part of its Webench series) and it will be available by the time you read this. This new tool will let you do your designing online with simulations. It also allows you to compare products to see which one works best.

ADI also recognizes that there is a market for tools that help analog designers and is readying support tools for choosing the right amplifier. The company will roll out three or four web-based design tools over the next month, and more next year. One of the tools will help you design op amps for specialized needs.

National's Dietz sees a future with more exotic processes that enable lower noise, lower distortion, better output swings yet still maintain the frequency performance, and better bandwidth for the power consumption. For example, the flat panel displays and laser diodes need 5 V, and the blue light diodes use 7V, which can't be supplied with deep sub-micron CMOS technology. “Those analog designs that don't require high performance, and can be done in CMOS, will be integrated. However, for applications that must have superior performance; they will use the more exotic processes,” he said.

Finally, one trend that will affect the entire semiconductor industry starting in 2004 is the lead-free initiative. Companies are supposed to meet the standard of removing lead from their electronics assembly by next year or they won't be able to ship into Europe. Companies can use a tin compound or a nickel-paladium gold mix in place of lead. TI believes that tin has unresolved problems because it gets whiskers on the leads and that can cause a short and ruin the part. Another related challenge involves soldering. The solder has to be lead-free and it needs temperatures about 20 degrees hotter than lead, and that extra 20 degrees can be significant in the precision of an op amp.

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