What Apple’s AirPower Teaches Us About the Importance of Thermal Simulation

16 April, 2019

AirPower, the wireless charging mat from Apple, was an ambitious venture. Following the AirPods (the company’s revolutionary wireless earphones), the product was next in line as Apple moved towards it’s “wireless future.” 

Like all of the tech titan’s products, it was launched to much fanfare. As a result, the recent announcement that Apple is scrapping the AirPower has sent shockwaves through the industry. It’s an unprecedented move for a company that focuses on tech that “just works.” 

According to inside sources, thermal management issues were responsible for the product’s withdrawal from the market. This in itself is somewhat less surprising, with reports of overheating having plagued the device since its launch last September. 

Critics have pointed the finger of blame at the mat’s multi-coil design, which involves multiple, different-sized coils overlapping within the device. This design choice posed a number of thermal challenges, with engineers saying that the design is flawed and that it gets far too hot to function reliably. 

Overheating of components is a complex problem for engineers to solve and has been a common cause of product recalls in the past. When it comes to electronics, it’s essential that engineers consider thermal factors at the earliest possible stage in the design cycle. 

Driven by consumer demands, device sizes are shrinking, which forces engineers to operate within a very confined space and makes thermal simulation even more important.

One of the best ways for engineers to get detailed insight into the thermal properties of their proposed design is through simulation software. Thermal simulation software, such as 6SigmaET, allows engineers to test and refine the device's internal layout prior to the production of a physical prototype.  

Manufacturers can then test their product and investigate thermal management solutions to ensure that it meets all necessary standard requirements (i.e. components are operating below the maximum temperature limit and the external casing is not too hot to the touch). 

The technology behind thermal simulation has advanced, resulting in a dramatic reduction in the time it takes to simulate detailed models. Developers can now quickly identify potential ‘hot-spots’ inside their products and solve them prior to finalizing the design. 

In order to deliver a product that meets consumer expectations and avoids a market-wide recall, thermal factors need to be addressed early in the design process. 

However, according to research from 6SigmaET, 75% of design engineers don’t conduct thermal testing in the early design stages, and 56% wait to do so until after a prototype is produced. A further 27% wait until after the product is complete. 

These practices represent a massive risk when it comes to bringing products to market. By taking a holistic approach to early thermal simulation and testing, engineers can mitigate any risk that may arise when launching the product.

Using thermal simulation software, manufacturers can engineer out potential thermal complications at the conceptual phase of the design process. This reduces the potential of future reliability issues and — in the case of Apple — the possibility of products being removed from the market altogether.

Blog written by: Tom Gregory, Product Manager

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