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Four Device Design Challenges that Good Thermal Design Can Combat

16 May, 2017


Today, the role of thermal management is about a whole lot more than whether a component or device is getting too hot to touch. Effective thermal design is an issue which affects everything from product reliability, to energy efficiency, weight, compliance, and even the sound coming from the device.

 

Given the wide variety of factors that can be influenced by a product’s thermal design, it’s worth remembering that even compact devices with low power dissipation will still require thermal management in order to maximise the performance and reliability of the finished design. With this in mind, here are four things that can be affected by poor thermal design – regardless of whether you’re designing hardware for a TV remote control or the components of a supercomputer:

 

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1. Product Reliability

Making sure the product you’re engineering is reliable is a key motivator for ensuring that customers are satisfied, spread positive messages about your products, and will ultimately return to you for future designs. Guaranteeing product reliability is also vital in ensuring that your products comply with industry standards, as well as those expected by customers.

According to 6SigmaET’s own research, 43% of design engineers consider product reliability to be their number one concern when developing a design, while a further 20% consider it to be their second highest priority. By considering the thermal management of a design using simulation before it goes to prototype, engineers can identify any reliability issues much earlier on in the game, resulting in fewer revisions, lower costs and often a reduced time-to-market.

 

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2. Energy Efficiency

As devices get more powerful and manufacturers demand that engineers cram evermore complex components into ever smaller spaces, the need to use the available power efficiently is more important than ever. For every unnecessary energy dissipation across a device, developers are effectively limiting the end functionality of their designs.

At the same time, by failing to account for thermal considerations early on in the design process, engineers are much more likely to have to install fans and other active cooling components later down the line. For every additional fan added, devices become less and less energy efficient. By running thermal tests in advance, engineers can ensure that fans are only used when necessary and that fan speed is kept low to reduce wasteful power consumption.

Reducing wasted power by the even smallest amount can make the biggest difference to the overall efficiency of a device.

 

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3. Device Weight

One way that engineers often aim to “solve” thermal issues in their designs is ‘over-engineer’ their thermal solutions – adding multiple heat sinks when only one would suffice for example. Rather than fixing such thermal issues early on in the process, this approach is often used to patch-over fundamental design flaws, stopping a device from overheating despite significant thermal output.

While this approach has its benefits in extreme circumstances, adding any unnecessary thermal components to a design to combat overheating can significantly increase both the weight, and size, of a device. This is likely to cause issues in usability, portability and the operation of the product. Again, using simulation to ascertain whether a heat sink is actually necessary before a physical prototype is created can not only save design costs but it will also help to make end devices, lighter, slimmer and easier to handle for the user.

 

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4. Device Noise

There’s nothing worse than a tiny device sounding like a jet engine, unfortunately that is exactly what many design engineers end up with when they attempt to use extra cooling fans to overcome the poor thermal design of their devices.

According to our research, a startling 27% of engineers wait until after a design has been completed before they even consider testing for thermal issues. In these circumstances it is very likely that designers will be more inclined to try and ‘manage’ any issues they find with the blunt force of extra fans rather than risk the costs and delays of going back to the drawing board. However, a good design that has factored in thermal issues from the outset will make for a better product with fewer fans and less device noise.

Thermal management is about so much more than the temperature of an end product. Through the use of thermal simulation, design engineers can manage not only the tangible heat coming from a product, but also those factors that affect the wider success of a product. Always remember that a good end product starts with a good design foundation – and thermal considerations are a major part of that.