Friday, April 6, 2012

What’s the difference between a fixed output power supply and a programmable output power supply?

I am very fortunate to work with a lot of very smart, talented, and knowledgeable engineers with vast technical backgrounds. I also work with some very smart, talented, and knowledgeable non-technical individuals, some of whom are involved in our sales process. Last month, during a sales training session, one of these individuals identified a competitor’s power supply product that looked very similar to one of our Agilent power supply products: a mainframe with plug-in modules. Upon further investigation, it turned out that the competitor’s product really consisted of modules that were virtually fixed output power supplies while our Agilent product provides programmable output power supplies. So, in fact, these two products do not compete against each other despite the initial appearance. This experience inspired me to post about the differences between a fixed output DC power supply and a programmable output DC power supply.

Fixed output power supplies
A fixed output power supply has, well, a fixed output voltage. This means that when the power supply is plugged in and the output is on, the output voltage is a single voltage that is not expected to change – it is fixed at that voltage. These power supplies are typically used to provide simple bias for a circuit. Some are embedded on a printed circuit board or mounted inside a larger chassis with other circuits, and others may be rack mounted. Fixed output power supplies come in many forms as shown below. Some have a single output voltage while others provide multiple output voltages. One example of a fixed output power supply with multiple outputs is a PC supply (upper left in the figure) – it typically has the following DC output voltages: +3.3 V, +5 V, and +/- 12 V. These voltages provide power to the chips on the PC’s motherboard, including the microprocessor, and to the peripherals installed in the PC, such as the disk drive.

Fixed output power supplies normally have a fixed current limit setting. They typically regulate their output voltages to an accuracy of a few percent (for example, 5%). Many have output noise specifications of 50 to 150 mV peak-to-peak and typically have no measurement capability (such as output voltage or output current measurement).

Programmable output power supplies
A programmable output power supply’s output voltage can be set (programmed) by the user. This means that you can set the voltage to any value between zero and the maximum rated voltage (plus and/or minus) of the supply and change it whenever necessary. The set values are normally controlled either from the front panel of the supply with knobs or buttons, or through the built-in interface connected to a computer. Commands are sent from the computer to the supply to change its output voltage. These power supplies are typically used in test and measurement applications. They might be found on a design engineer’s bench or mounted in a rack of automated test equipment. They come in many forms as shown below. Some have a single output voltage while others provide multiple output voltages. The ability to change the output voltage is required in a circuit test environment. For example, to test a PC’s disk drive, you will need +5 V and + 12 V to power the drive. When installed in a PC, the disk drive will get power from a fixed output power supply in the PC. But when testing the disk drive outside of the PC, you should use a programmable power supply. Since the output voltage of a fixed output supply has an accuracy of a few percent, the voltage could be higher or lower than the nominal. For example, if the +5 V fixed supply has an accuracy of 5%, it could be any value from +4.75 V to +5.25 V. When installed in the PC, the disk drive has to work over this entire range of possible voltages applied to it. So to test it outside of the PC, a programmable power supply should be used and set to various voltages in this range to ensure the drive will always work.


Programmable output power supplies normally have a programmable current limit setting to help protect the device under test from exposure to excessive current. They typically regulate their output voltages to an accuracy of a few tenths of a percent or even better (for example, 0.06%). They have output noise specifications of 1 to 50 mV peak-to-peak and typically have built-in output voltage and output current measurement capability.

Summary
So the main differences between fixed output power supplies and programmable output power supplies are the ability to change the output voltage and the specifications. You can change the output voltage of a programmable supply while that of a fixed supply cannot be changed. Programmable supplies have much more accurate output voltages and much lower noise. They also can typically measure their own output voltage and current while a fixed output supply cannot. Of course, the extra capabilities of the programmable supplies add to their price, but you get what you pay for!

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