Alan Elbanhawy

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11 years, 271 days

Expert Power System Architect at Exar Corporation. I hold a B.S. in Electrical Engineering and have over 40 years of engineering experience in power supply design and R&D management. I hold eighteen patents and have applications for four more. I've authored over 60 papers on power delivery that have been translated to five languages in international conferences and technical publications.

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These are Posts that have been published by Alan Elbanhawy

The engineering design process involves numerous steps that allow the engineer to reach his/her final design objectives to the best of his/her ability. This process is akin to creating a fine sculpture or a great painting where different approaches are explored and tested, then either adopted or abandoned in favor of better or more developed and fine-tuned ones. Consider the x-ray of an oil painting. X-rays of the works of master artists reveal the thought and creative processes of their minds as they complete the work. I am sure that some colleagues may disagree with the comparison of our modern engineering designs to art masterpieces, but let me ask you to explore the innovations and their brilliant forms, and maybe you will agree with me even a little bit.

Design Process

Successful design engineers must have the very best craft, knowledge and experience to generate work that is truly worthy of being incorporated in products that sell in the tens, or even hundreds, of millions. This is presently achieved by having cross-functional teams of engineers work on a design, allowing cross checking and several rounds of reviews, followed by multiple prototypes and exhaustive preproduction testing until the team reaches a collective conclusion that “we have a design.” This is then followed by the final design review and release of the product. This necessary and vital approach is clearly a time consuming and costly process. Over the years I have asked myself several times, “Did I explore every single detail of the design fully”? “Am I sure that this is the very best I can do?” And more importantly, “Does every component have the most fine-tuned value to render the best performance possible?” And invariably I am left with a bit of doubt. That brings me to a tool that has helped me in this regard.

A Great New Tool

I have used Maple for over 25 years to dig deeply into my designs and understand the interplay between a given set of parameters and the performance of the particular circuit I am working on. This has always given me a complete view of the problem at hand and solidly pointed me in the direction of the best possible solutions.

In recent years, a new feature called “Explore” has been added to Maple. This amazing feature allows the engineer/researcher to peer very deeply into any formula and explore the interaction of EVERY variable in the formula. 

Take for example the losses in the control MOSFET in a synchronous buck converter. In order to minimize these losses and maximize the power conversion efficiency, the most suitable MOSFET must be selected. With thousands of these devices being available in the market, a dozen of them are considered very close to the best at any given time. The real question then is, which one is really the very best amongst all of them? 

There are two possible approaches - one, build an application prototype, test a random sample of each and choose the one that gives you the best efficiency.  Or, use an accurate mathematical model to calculate the losses of each and chose the best. The first approach lacks the variability of each parameter due to the six sigma statistical distribution where it is next to impossible to get a device laying on the outer limits of the distribution. That leaves the mathematical model approach. If you take this route, you can have built-in tolerances in the equations to accommodate all the variabilities and use a simplified equation for the control MOSFET losses (clearly you can use a very detailed model should you chose to) to explore these losses. Luckily you can explore the losses using the Explore function in Maple.

The figure below shows a three dimensional plot, plus five other variables in the formula that the user can change using sliders that cover the range of values of interest including Minima and Maxima, while observing in real time the effects of the change on the power loss.

This means that by changing the values of any set of variables, you can observe their effect on the function. To put it simply, this single feature helps you replace dozens of plots with just one, saving you precious time and cost in fine-tuning your design. In my opinion, this is equivalent to an eight-dimensional/axes plot.

I used this amazing feature in the last few weeks and I was delighted at how simple it is to use and how much it simplifies the study of my approach and my components selection, in record times!

For the past thirty years, I have used several mathematical packages for problem solving and graphing. It all started with spreadsheet software that really helped speedup calculations compared to calculators. As many people do, once I had one tool I then started looking for another that would offer even more capabilities and features. I tested several of the very early math software but none really did all that I wanted until I came across Maple while I was working at SPAR Aerospace in Canada. For me, the rest is history. As long as I had a copy of Maple, it was all that I needed.

On occasions when I did not have a copy of this amazing software, I resorted to spreadsheets once more to complete fairly large and complex projects involving large databases and large numbers of calculations, especially when performing What-If scenarios. One distinct disadvantage of using a spreadsheet was the cryptic form of equation writing. I had to divide one long equation into several sections in different cells and then add them all up, which clearly is not good for documentation of the calculations. It is also very confusing for other engineers to know what that equation is or what it does. The development of the full engineering spreadsheet took months to complete, debug and verify. During this process, when I had errors, it was often very difficult to track exactly where the problem was, making the debugging process time consuming and sometimes very frustrating.

Having worked with Maple before, I remembered how easy it was to enter equations in a very familiar, readable math format. The real power of this software is that it allows you to write the equation(s) anyway you like and solve for any given parameter, unlike spreadsheets where you have to solve the problem first, by hand, for the parameter you want and then get the spreadsheet to calculate the value. I remember one time a few years ago when I wrote nine or ten simultaneous differential equations all in symbolic form and asked Maple to calculate certain parameters in a fully symbolic form. To my utmost disbelief, the answer came back within few minutes. With results in hand, I was able to quickly finish my research, and the results were published at PCIM Europe 2005 in “Distributed Gate ESR and its Effect on Shoot Through Performance at the Die Level”. I would never have gotten the results I needed if I was using a spreadsheet.

Even with much simpler systems of equations, finding solutions with a paper and pencil was never an easy task for me. It took a very long time, and even then there was no guarantee that I did not make copying errors, accidentally leave out a term, or make a calculation error. After I found the correct solution, I then had the problem of plotting the results, which I often needed in 3-D. Plotting allowed much deeper insights into the interdependency of all the parameters and made it easy for me to concentrate on the important ones without wasting any time. I was very happy when I could pass all these tasks onto Maple, which could do them much faster and more reliably then I ever could. Maple is a software that allows me to go beyond routine engineering calculations and gives me the tools to reach levels of insight and understanding that were completely out of reach of the average engineer until a few years ago.

For the record, I have no business affiliations with Maplesoft. I’m writing this article because Maple makes such a difference in my work that I feel it is important to share my experiences so other engineers can get the same benefits.

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