Steve Sandler has been involved with power system engineering for nearly 40 years, has been a supporter of SI Journal since its founding, and now sits on its editorial advisory board. Steve is the founder of PICOTEST.com, a company specializing in power integrity solutions including measurement products, services, and training. He frequently lectures and leads workshops internationally on the topics of power, PDN, and distributed systems and is a Keysight certified expert for EDA software. Committed to education, Steve often writes articles and books related to power supply and PDN performance. His book, Power Integrity: Measuring, Optimizing and Troubleshooting Power-Related Parameters in Electronics Systems, was published by McGraw-Hill in 2014. Steve recently talked to SI Journal’s Janine Love about the state of power integrity education, where the needs are, and what can be done about it. As usual, Steve didn’t pull any of his punches, and let us know exactly how he sees it.
Janine Love (SIJ): As you travel the world giving talks and seminars, what questions do you get most often from engineers? Or what surprised you most about what they want to know?
[Steve] By far the most common question is why hasn’t anyone taught them these things before and why are the semiconductor companies telling them things that aren’t true? I love travelling globally, because engineers in different countries are focused on different, and diverse technologies. That keeps it interesting for me. I am most surprised when I hear that the engineers are thirsty for the knowledge, but their companies are not supportive of the education, either due to time out of the office or the cost of the workshop.
SIJ: What are the limitations of technology or equipment that make PI analysis frustrating for users? When and how can that change?
[Steve] Measuring power integrity is a challenge, especially on very high density PCBs. The designers generally won’t (or can’t) sacrifice the PCB real estate to support accurate probing. We are working on better probes, but this will always be a challenge. I tell my customers that the simulator is one of their best tools. At the point that we can’t accurately measure, we need to have very high confidence in our models and simulators. Once you are able to trust the simulator and the model, life is just a little bit easier for the PI engineer.
SIJ: What can companies do to foster innovation?
[Steve] Let it happen! Companies, and US companies in particular, are so bottom line and short-term focused that they don‘t allow or support innovation. They also see failure as a bad thing, but from failures come the best successes. This attitude is a losing proposition in the long run for both the company and the engineer (who often leaves for what appears to be greener pastures). Invest in engineers and give them the challenges, opportunities, and tools to excel, and they generally will. I like to invest in people and give them challenges that suit their personal goals as well as our company goals.
SIJ: How important is “in person training;” do you see demand growing or waning for it?
[Steve] Our feedback says that in-person is the most effective method of training. It is also quite inefficient. We limit class sizes to maximize the attendee benefit, and logistically shipping so much equipment around the world is difficult and expensive. Most large companies are a bit fixated on the near-term or transactional benefits. We have a longer-term vision, so we think demand is growing and we’ll continue to support it as one of many channels to educate the community.
What do today’s SI/PI engineers need?
[Steve] Engineers are busier than ever. They aren’t looking to purchase shiny new instruments, they are looking for answers. Putting pretty pictures on the screen is nice but doesn’t really provide the answers. One of our next goals is to bring AI to the test and measurement world. We’ll also be focused on building a bridge between power electronics and power integrity. I have a short piece in the January Signal Integrity Journal print edition to kick this one off.
How’s business? Is the interest in evaluating power integrity growing?
[Steve] Picotest has a busy and productive 2018, with 40% year over year growth. This growth was the result of three things. Power integrity is now a mainstream issue that most engineers have to deal with, education is on the rise, with many more attending our workshops this year than last, and many more test and measurement companies now promote power integrity solutions.
You recently opened an office in India. What are your company’s expansion goals?
[Steve] India made a lot of sense for us, though we weren’t planning for it to happen in 2018. Dr. Davis was doing post-doctoral research in Georgia when his visa expired. The political climate isn’t good for visa renewals at this time, so I tried, unsuccessfully, to find a new sponsor. I recognize his value to the community and brought him into Picotest. He’ll do advanced research for some of our new products there, help to grow our customer base and add technical writing resources. Bangalore offers a strong, vibrant source of engineering talent.
What surprised you in 2018? What do you look forward to (engineering wise) in 2019?
[Steve] One of my biggest surprises of 2018 was a new development, which we hope to be available in early 2019. While writing the EDICON University lecture for measuring impedance below 100uOhms, I realized that SI cable and PI cables need to be different. Sure, they are both 50 Ohms, but the PI cable is much more sensitive to ground resistance while SI cable is more sensitive to the center conductor. We’ll introduce PI cable in early 2019.
Tell us about one of your latest products: how did it come about, what was the evolution, and what technical or market challenges had to be overcome? [Steve] By far, one of our most successful products, and one that I am most proud of, is our 10.5GHz TDR in a USB stick. It has a NIST traceable 10.5GHz bandwidth, symmetrical 35ps rise and fall times and a nearly perfect flat response. We were able to secure the trademark PerfectPulse, which you’ll start to see.
We always have new developments coming to market. Our newest product is a higher current PSRR injector. Offering a 20Amp current rating, an integrated hall current sensor and high voltage operation were frequent requests. In part, it is for measuring input impedance of DC/DC converters. We’re also upgrading our J2102A coaxial ground isolator to J2102B. This also came from the EDICON University paper and increases the isolation by more than 40dB, while improving the high frequency limit from 250MHz to more than 8GHz. There’s more, but I have to keep some in my pocket for later!
SIJ: Any other big plans for 2019? More books?
[Steve] The new Switchmode book is actually a re-edited version of my first book, SMPS Simulation with SPICE, so it didn’t take too much time. Dr. Davis co-authored a new book about PI Simulation with ADS. Heidi Barnes is writing the forward and Charles Hymowitz is editing it. It will be published by my good friends at Stairway Press, and we hope it will be out by mid-2019.
In 2019 we’ll go even more global. I’ll speak at EDICON China in Beijing in April, I’ll participate with the University of Cambridge on a GaN panel at PCIM in Germany in May, and I am hopeful that I’ll speak at DGCon in Israel. We just made our non-invasive stability margin software available for the Rohde & Schwarz ZNL. It will come to a few more instruments and also to Keysight’s ADS in 2019. I’ll continue the PI mission with my good friend Heidi Barnes.
SIJ: What’s your secret to success?
[Steve] Many are behind the scenes allowing this to happen. Without the support of my wife Susan, who often travels with me, I couldn’t do what I do. My customers provide me with and endless list of challenges to solve, and I am truly thankful for that. Our manufacturing partners support the craziest of my ideas and some of them even work out pretty well. Friends help me with more encouragement than anyone deserves. The editors, and you in particular, give me the channel to share my thoughts with the community. In the end, I hope I am giving back more to the community than I took.