The Key to Solving the Problem of Thermal Management

Chris Aldham, Product Manager at 6SigmaET

As competition within the fast-paced world of the electronics industry scales new heights, product designers and manufacturers have found themselves under increasing pressure to cut both cost and time-to-market (TTM). The rapid rate at which modern technology is evolving is pushing engineers to create complex designs within a limited timeframe, often driven by marketing-led lines.

ETcaseOne of the major challenges facing engineers is the need to pack increasingly high-performance hardware into decreasingly small spaces – providing little room for heat dissipation and leaving designs vulnerable to potential thermal complications. With consumer demand for complex and compact devices showing no signs of abating, engineers are having to turn to increasingly innovative solutions to resolve these issues.

In regard to managing and removing excess heat, the use of thermal simulation software has been a revelation. Based on the use of Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD), thermal simulation employs numerical analyses to model the flow of fluids and heat transfer throughout a device. As a result, the need to produce a raft of expensive physical prototypes has declined, with engineers preferring to conduct simulations on digital prototypes to predict how their products will react under real-world conditions. Instead of producing numerous individual prototypes – and exposing them to a variety of test conditions – design engineers are now able to virtually test how subtle alterations to component configuration will impact heat flow within the product.

One of the keys to effective simulation is an efficient gridding technique, optimised in such a way as to provide both performance and accuracy. A grid that is too finely detailed will take far longer to solve and may require additional expensive hardware to process. Conversely, an overly coarse grid structure will impact the accuracy of simulation results. While the most modern simulation platforms can automate the gridding process for maximum accuracy, recent research from 6SigmaET has found that 61 percent of engineers must manually modify their grids, while 34 percent are still creating grids manually from scratch.

At 6SigmaET, we utilize a unique, multi-level unstructured staggered grid solver. This ensures that larger areas – those that don’t warranthighly detailed grids – are treated at a suitable resolution level, while still allowing the tool to select a finer grid for smaller objects. Our recent State of Thermal research shows that typically, non-6SigmaET users are twice as likely to have to create their grids manually.

Such is the complexity of modern electronics that thermal simulation software can benefit a vast range of applications. In terms of everyday use, smartphones provide a perfect example of a technology in which thermal simulation can prove advantageous.

When it comes to handheld mobile devices, engineers need to pay particular attention to microprocessors, which are often subjected to computationally intense workloads. This can cause the device to heat up by more than 30ºC within seconds, before quickly cooling again. The dramatic fluctuation in temperature, if cooled improperly, can result in poor performance and a reduced lifecycle. This is where the use of advanced gridding and accurate thermal simulation can prove vital during the product design stage, by allowing engineers to identify and ultimately “design out” potential hot-spots before a device goes to market.

As devices continue to shrink in size but increase in complexity, innovative solutions such as advanced grid solvers, are going to become ever more important to engineers searching for creative solutions to thermal management issues.

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