In ipXchange’s second interview as part of our sponsored coverage of Ambiq’s presence at CES 2024, Guy chats with Dan Cermak, VP of architecture and product planning.
In this segment, Dan describes many key points that should be considered when developing a low-power designs and how Ambiq’s technological offerings can help engineers solve the challenge of creating battery-operated products that retain high levels of functionality with longest battery life.
Outlining the challenge
To begin, Dan lists the questions that Ambiq might ask as part of the initial conversation with a new or existing customer looking to design a product that utilises low power consumption:
- What primary problem are you trying to solve?
- What is your application?
- What is your end product?
- How are you engaging with customers?
- How does ‘low power’ manifest as a value add for your product?
Such questions are important for Ambiq to gauge whether the request is currently possible – or achievable within a reasonable time frame with additional research and development – and whether there is a clear understanding of the problem looking to be solved. Dan gives the example of a smart watch that lasts for a month. Ambiq, and the designer, would require an overview of the desired user interface, application, etc. as all these factors will contribute to the overall power consumption of the device.
Ambiq has many tools to solve these issues when presented with a design challenge – low-power chips, power-optimised software with options for edge AI, a system development team with previous experience on the OEM side of low power – and this means that Ambiq has a good understanding of what a customer may be looking to achieve even when the vision is not crystal clear; this is a matter of expertise from helping many customers bring products to market.
Common limitations and breaking these barriers
Guy then asks Dan what questions a potential customer will not know to ask themselves but that Ambiq has asked many times before. Dan’s responses are simple but often overlooked:
What are your constraints? – Most low-power products run on batteries, and with form factor highly correlated with energy capacity, the maximum battery life of your product is heavily dependent on your intended design.
What are your compute requirements? – Any task running on a processing core will consume energy, so is your product simply a watch running some form of basic activity tracking, or will you be making phone calls and following maps on it? The desired functionality is greatly dependent on the power envelope set by the battery life.
What can Ambiq do to boost customer expectations? – Why have a 14-day battery life when you could have 30 days of battery life or more? Ambiq wants to challenge customer expectations and push new products beyond the limits of what might seem possible, rather than shrink expectations to meet power requirements.
Dan then explains the philosophy behind this last point by first outlining the two main ways that lower power consumption can improve a product:
- It can have a longer battery life while providing the same functionality
- It can do more with the same battery life
Contrary to the previous statement, Ambiq would rather make a new product do more with the same battery life than simply extend and already long one. Dan gives the example of a smart watch that knows that you’ve gone for a run rather than a similar product that you to need inform of your activities. This requires the high levels of compute power that Ambiq has optimised for minimal energy consumption, thus the battery life does not suffer when implementing this new functionality.
Dan also explains that for customers looking to boost the performance of their devices tenfold, for example, Ambiq has the expertise – in software and hardware – to enable them to do this. This is especially useful for new companies or business units that have great ideas but do not yet have the in-house resources to make these a reality. And as consumers of such products themselves, the team at Ambiq loves to see new devices that lead the market in what is possible in terms of previously unseen functionality that can enhance the user experience.
Staying ahead of the curve
With Ambiq having so much experience in building these sorts of low-power devices, Guy brings up an interesting issue regarding the limits of what new knowledge Ambiq is able to share between similar projects by different customers. As a continuous learner, Dan sees floods of innovation every day, especially in the emerging field of edge AI. This inevitably results in new use cases and design challenges, but Ambiq still wants to push their customers by asking them – and their customers – what they desire of similar products in five years time, rather than simply for the next release.
Asking questions like these mean that Ambiq is constantly ahead of the curve so that there is far less issue with unwanted knowledge transfer because the expertise is present within Ambiq long before a customer is ready to build such a product. That said, Ambiq will always aim to meet these demands as they come. We can now see why Ambiq wants to enable customers to develop new applications without completely doing it for them – this solves issues of ‘secret knowledge’ transfer between competing customers.
Meeting application requirements
Running many different applications on battery-operated devices is also a big challenge for designers to conquer while retaining low power consumption, especially when data is being sent to a phone or directly to the cloud. Alternatively, these computations can be done directly on the device, which has its own power requirements that depend on the task at hand. In a world where, ideally, a customer is going to wear a device even when sleeping, a design with a battery that does not need to be charged every night is essential.
In understanding a customer’s needs in detail, Ambiq can make sure all the required building blocks – silicon and software – are present in a design to ensure that running these applications is done as efficiently as possible for a battery life that will last for months at a time. As a side note of commentary from us at ipXchange, we would expect that Ambiq’s commitment to this end would be limited to parameters that are within the customer’s control – a poorly designed third-party app cannot be accounted for, unless of course the device stops allowing it to be used/downloaded.
Experience means faster time to market
As Guy suggests, with so much experience in helping to build low-power products, Ambiq must surely have a huge value proposition in its ability to accelerate time to market, and Dan agrees with this wholeheartedly. Ambiq likes both the challenge of doing this and seeing its expertise put to good use so that a customer does not have to worry about power management, for example; Ambiq has the software to make development of low power applications a seamless process.
Having these resources means that customers can spend much more of their time on the user-experience-level innovation that will help their product shine in the market, rather than the foundations that users will only comment on if done poorly. Dan also reiterates how Ambiq’s curiosity regarding the expectations for future products results in many of the required foundations existing by the time the customer needs them. Again, this helps to accelerate time to market.
As Guy summarises, Ambiq brings much more to the table than ‘simply’ extremely power-efficient chips. Designers also have access to a suite of other resources derived from Ambiq’s expertise and genuine interest in building low-power devices. This makes integrating Ambiq microcontrollers and wireless SoCs a much more streamlined process so that the key low power benefits are retained; such benchmarks often look great in a datasheet but can be challenging to stay true to when building a complete product. It is this system-level understanding of low power that makes Ambiq such a great partner for designers looking to push the boundaries of what wearable devices are capable of.
To paraphrase Dan’s final comments, there is a delicate balance between hardware and software for getting the most out of a given battery. Ambiq’s system-level solution ensures the most efficient deployment of both these key components to make next-level battery-operated products a reality.
Learn about Ambiq’s ultra-low-power Apollo4 Plus SoC by following the link to the board page below, where you will find detailed specifications of this device and an application form that you can fill out to apply to evaluate this technology for use in a commercial project.