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The ways thermal simulation is evolving in 2020

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By Tom Gregory, Product Manager at 6SigmaET

Last year was a landmark year for the thermal simulation industry. Whether it’s rapid advancements in solver technology, the development of cross-platform file formats, or even the launch of VR-based thermal simulation tools, the thermal industry has never been more advanced.

For each of these developments, innovation was driven by genuine changes in the market demand. Take for instance the development of cross-platform ‘neutral file formats’ for electronic design. For years, thermal simulation professionals were stuck in their ways, adopting one simulation platform and then never switching or even trying others. In fact, 6SigmaET’s 2017 research found that 40% of thermal engineers had never tried an alternative simulation tool.

Today, however, all of this is starting to change. As supply chains grow more complicated, and devices adopt an ever-wider variety of components, it’s become vital for engineers to build models that can be opened and tested within a variety of platforms. In the face of this changing demand, thermal simulation platforms also had to evolve, leading to the creation of the world’s first ‘neutral’ file format for thermal simulation (ECXML) in 2019.

Now, at the start 2020, new changes in electronics design will deliver similar shifts in the simulation market. Here are three of the biggest changes we expect to see in the year ahead, based on the latest survey of 100 electronics design engineers by 6SigmaET:

Expanding the IoT

While the electronics community has discussed the Internet of Things (IoT) for the better part of ten years, the last 12 months have seen an explosion in IoT devices. From smart assistants in the consumer space to applications in industry, the internet of things is rapidly becoming a reality of the modern world.

According to 6SigmaET’s research, 12% of electronics engineers believe the IoT will be their number 1 priority in 2020. This focus on the IoT means a number of major design changes, including making devices smaller, more powerful, more portable and more reliable in rugged environments. At the same time, a renewed focus on power and portability also brings considerations around battery life and longevity.

The rise of 5G

In November 2019, some of the world’s largest mobile carriers announced the launch of 5G, bringing faster data speeds and lower latency to mobile networks across the globe. 6SigmaET’s survey found the incorporation of 5G capabilities represents a top priority for electronics engineers. A whole new wave of 5G infrastructure is rapidly coming into effect, all of which will need to be carefully designed for maximum thermal efficiency.

Let’s use small cells within 5G infrastructure as an example. Small cells are used to increase data capacity, speed and overall network efficiency. Given these small cells will be used in densely-populated areas, its vital their cooling systems are as small and silent as possible. This means that bulky fans should be avoided, and heat sinks must be as small and light as possible.

With these demanding requirements, engineers need all the help they can get with their thermal design. Thermal simulation tools are now essential to ensure the thermal design of the 5G cells keeps the device operating in all weather conditions — modelling both the solar gain and wind conditions.

Renewed focus on sustainability

In 2019, sustainability leapt up the agenda for electronics engineers, jumping from bottom of the list of priorities to third from the top in 6SigmaET’s research.

In the push for sustainability, product designers are keen to reduce the power consumption of their devices by removing or lowering the speed of fans, without impacting the reliability of their devices. But, to achieve it, adequate thermal design is vital. By identifying potential hotspots early on in the design process, with thermal simulation software for example, engineers can reduce the temperature of the device without the need for fans.

Given this change, we expect to see the adoption of thermal simulation growing in 2020, with an express focus on functions and features that allow for greater power management and sustainable design.

All of these considerations drive the need for improved thermal management and early-stage testing and simulation. By thinking carefully about the layout, heat flow and cooling hardware within their designs, electronics engineers can make devices smaller, more powerful and more portable, without impacting reliability or battery life. All of these considerations will prove vital in the future development and adoption of new technologies.

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