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The Importance of Quartz Timing Technology

Timing circuitry is the heartbeat of our embedded systems as electrical engineers. So many of our designs rely on it, yet it can often be overlooked as superfluous and not a major area for improvement or innovation. Can extra considerations on our timing device selection offer improvements for our products in this all too often overlooked area of electronics? Todd Baker from Future Electronics sat down with ECS Inc. International’s David Meaney, Vice President of Technical Sales and Marketing, to discuss the evolution of quartz crystal technology and how it effects timing solutions.

Baker: Whether we’re designing with a simple microcontroller, an FPGA, or a complex multi core networking processor, as electrical engineers, the timing of our system really is the heartbeat of the product we’re trying to create. In a lot of cases when we’re thinking about our clock circuitry or the timing that we’re using for our FPGAs or processors, we tend to go to the reference designs given to us by our suppliers because we know that’s going to work and the device, we’re designing with is very complex and the last thing on our boards that we want to fail.

But are we making a mistake in doing that? Are there innovations around quartz technology that we could be making benefits to our system? We’ve seen a lot of changes and developments over the course of the last decade where timing technology has gotten smaller, better at power consumption, better as far as the accuracy of the actual solution.

Today I have the privilege of speaking with David Meaney, who is the Vice President of Technical Sales and Marketing at ECS Inc. International, about some of the developments and improvements in quartz technology that have happened over the course of last decade and more and what we, as embedded engineers, should be considering when we’re looking at our timing circuitry of the embedded systems that we’re designing. David, thank you so much for meeting with us today.

Meaney: Thanks for having me, Todd. I’m very excited to be here.

Baker: Yeah, I really appreciate it. And this is an exciting area for us to talk about. Like I said at the beginning: I think something that we as electrical engineers overlook a ton. Of course, technology for timing applications is something that has been around for a very, very long time and sometimes it isn’t the sexiest thing. We don’t think about it. It doesn’t get nearly as much press and fanfare when there is a major advancement in quartz technology that sometimes we see with wide band gap or the miniaturization of the transistor – things along those lines.

What do you see as some of the greatest innovations in quartz technology that have occurred over the last 10 years or so?

Meaney: You know Todd, you touched on it. Over the past ten years there’s been a tremendous amount of engineering put into quartz geometries and performance. Today’s quartz crystal blanks offer a lot more performance than they did just a few years ago. We’re seeing higher fundamental frequencies, lower jitter and phase noise, tighter stabilities and tolerances, and lower aging performance.

The performance of today’s clocks is a key factor in the success of today’s modern technology. The markets driving them, as you know, would be IoT, industrial, automotive, medical, wearable, and the like. If we want to look at some specifics in quartz crystals – smaller overall quartz crystal blanks with less mass will give us those high fundamental frequencies for high end communications and other strict performance requirements. Even more important are the low frequencies for consumer goods available in much smaller packages like our industry leading 1.2 x 1.0 mm package. Also our B series crystals. They offer much improved aging from what was 3 – 5 ppm per year for traditional crystals is now 1 or 2 ppm per year for these new geometries. And they also offer lower load capacitance values for lower start up, lower current during usage, and they do this without increasing any ESR.

If we want to look at some oscillator improvements – ECS’s MultiVoltTM technology which is essentially a variable supply voltage ASIC that we developed. What this does is it makes oscillators battery capable with full operation from 1.6 ~ 3.6 volts. MultiVoltTM technology also works perfectly with static supplies. A customer can use them in place of a 1.8-, 2.5-, or 3.3-volt supply which also means you have less parts to inventory. And because MultiVoltTM have an internal power regulation, you also get isolation, so your clock is less effected by power supply fluctuations and power line noise.

With all of this comes improved jitter and improved phase noise. Typically, we’d measure clocks in picoseconds of jitter. Now, ECS can offer clocks in femtoseconds of jitter. Our LMV series offers world class jitter – sub 50 fS of jitter 12 kHz ~ 20 MHz. The improvements are bountiful, and engineers should definitely take advantage of these.

Baker: Yeah, no question about it. When I started off in electrical engineering in my initial systems, I needed clocking for an 8-bit microcontroller that went into a very large system in a robot. Scale was not a factor as they were industrial controls generally that I was working on. Today with everything moving towards wearables or wireless, something that’s going to go into your cell phone, or just the wireless connectivity of everything, the designs have changed a tremendous amount and so the needs of new products from suppliers like ECS has to change with it. How have you guys seeing that continued miniaturization and need for smaller and smaller packages and more and more accuracy impact the way that ECS is going to market with product?

Meaney: We recognize, and I think just about anybody would recognize, just how connected our world is. I think the average person has five connected personal devices, and that number is going to double over the next five or so years.

So ECS has looked closely at our product portfolio, and we saw a need for product that was very small, used very little power, and performed well under constantly changing environmental conditions. Our latest crystals and oscillators have been engineered to offer great performance regardless of environmental conditions. We have small form factor crystals with low 1ppm first-year aging and oscillators with 50 fS of jitter and low current draw in the microamp range. These are the products that are feeding that insatiable IoT connectivity dragon and we continue to engineer new products to meet the needs of tomorrow’s everything connected world.

Baker: And I think it’s those things that makes it worth the extra design engineering effort to take a look at the timing circuitry. Because like I said, when I had a complex multi core Cortex 8 type of system I was designing, I was nervous. I definitely would be nervous to change what that particular supplier was telling me they used for the clocking of their system. But I didn’t ever spend a lot of time taking a look at the data sheets behind those clocking systems. Taking a look at how this is going to derate over time? How the ppm going to change over the course of years in the field? What is this doing to my power consumption? Is this going to have an impact on my battery life? I think those questions are worthwhile questions for us as engineers to ask as we’re looking at what we’re being spoon-fed from the data sheet to say ‘Hey! There may be something better here if I do a little bit of research that can make my end product quite a bit better.’

Ithink that’s a really exciting thing and something that is exciting to see ECS and others working on right now in improving what we can do as electrical engineers.

Meaney: 100%. Lean on us, you know? Lean on us to help you with those decision makings. We understand that there are design registrations and there are other things that may be beyond your control. But when they are within your control, your frequency guys? You should be able to lean on them for decisions and help steer you toward the product that’s right for your design.

Baker: Yeah, and that’s one of the great things – having that expertise on hand. Having engineers that can sit and look at it with you and explain why there’s a benefit in making that adjust or that change is definitely helpful. You know we could all reach out for that help, and ECS certainly has a great network of engineers along with Future Electronics engineers who are always there to help – to look at those things and ensure that you’re going down the right path – which I think is incredible.

Now certainly as an industry, in the semiconductor industry, we’ve seen allocation issues across the vast majority of product areas. We typically talk about this in microcontrollers a lot: in some of the discrete components, power FETs, voltage regulations, circuitry, things like that. We’ve also seen in the timing area things like the AKM fire that happened I think a year or year and a half ago now in Japan where a considerable amount of the world’s TCXO crystals were being created has also happened. How has ECS been impacted by allocation right now and what are you doing to counteract the lead time trends that we see right now?

Meaney: Well, certainly ECS isn’t immune to the global shortages, the pandemics, global posturing – that’s affecting everybody. So, what we can do is that we’ve looked at all of our products and we’ve rationalized what materials get bought and where those finished goods are made. Because of those efforts, ECS has been able to keep materials and finished products in the pipeline and the developmental funnel. What people want to know is what that means to our customers. ECS product through put more than doubled from 2020 to 2021 and ECS continued to maintain the largest inventory of product in the U.S.A. Our warehouse in Lenexa will typically have four to five million dollars’ worth of available to sell product. So, while we can’t answer every question with ‘it’ll ship tomorrow’, we’re doing everything within our power to make sure that we’re supporting our customers.

Baker: Yeah, that’s I think the best I think any of us can do in this market. The thing I find so very important with that is communication, communication, communication. I think the faster that we know that there’s a need for manufacturing down the road, the faster we can start pipelining inventory, and making sure that our customers are ready to go, have the parts they need, and can get to production and we can start staging that for them early so they have a just-in-time pipeline.

Meaney: That’s the benefit of us having Future in our corner with us. It gives us that ability to turn, or pivot, make changes on the fly and support whatever the customers’ requirements are wherever they are on the globe.

Baker: Always the goal that we’ve got as a company and certainly a service that we spend a lot of time talking about in this market especially and we want to continue to make sure that we’re doing the best job that we possibly can for our partner customers. That communication, I think, is just key. It’s tough for us to pipeline if we don’t know. And the faster that we can know, the faster that we can ensure product is ready to go and moving that direction.

Outside of that, looking at the markets that ECS sees as the growth markets and the biggest growth markets for timing and for you as a company, moving forward where do you guys have some of your focus as far as new technologies and new areas that you are trying to grow into as the market continues to evolve?

Meaney: Certainly, between both technology and COVID and other things, ECS has had some great success in a lot of, not what we’ll call new markets. Certainly, IoT and connectivity markets are the premier drivers, we all know that. But we’ve also seen tremendous growth in the industrial space – industrial automation, dark warehouses are helping drive manufacturing costs down. Even before the pandemic, the medical industry was pushing for more home healthcare options to free up beds and let people heal at home, so the medical industry has been a huge growth. But really a rapidly growing segment for ECS has been within our automotive products. A modern internal combustion engine vehicle is going to have more than 80 microprocessors that need quality timing. With EV technology and implementation of hybrid or fully electric vehicles, the number of timing products needed has gone up exponentially. There’s no slowdown in sight or predicted. But ECS has also captured other niches for other automotive grade products from the expansion in the medical world and municipalities needing heart monitors and blood glucose meters as well as gas and water meters for public service. They want these things to all be built under the same stringent manufacturing and field performance that the automotive world has demanded for years. These automotive grade products are engineered to be used in extreme temperature environments and they are built ruggedized to survive in the harshest of applications. All of our automotive grade products are built at IATF 16949 factories and are certified to the AEC-Q200 requirements. Trying to move into these new areas has been kind of a shift but luckily, we saw this coming long before it happened and we’ve got those products on hand, and at Future, ready to be shipped to those customers that need them.

Baker: Certainly, some new things that as vehicle electrification continues on and we get into more needs for certifications, things that maybe, I’m not an automotive engineer so I’ve never designed on that side other than working with many of them, not something I always consider looking at ‘Is my crystal AEC-Q200 certified?’ To know that ECS is going down that road and has products in that area, definitely a great thing as we see that sector as one of the fastest growing sectors by far for the semiconductor industry.

Meaney: And we see that, like I said, in other areas. Municipalities with gas and water metering for example. The things that used to be in a closet, in a climate-controlled area, are now on a roof or on a pole. They definitely need that extra design effort for temperature and or robustness just to survive.

Baker: Definitely. It’s always something else, another problem we as engineers have to solve. It keeps us employed right? That’s always a good thing.

Meaney: Exactly.

Baker: So closing out, when we look at timing circuitry, like I said, it can sometimes be a little bit tough to look outside of what we’re being spoon-fed in the basic application notes that we look at for a customer. There’s a lot of different timing options out there, a lot of different crystal companies. Why should an engineer be looking at ECS? What do you guys see as your primary differentiation in the timing space? Why should an engineer be considering your product above all others?

Meaney: You know Todd, we talked a little bit about it earlier with the development of products that are meeting all of today’s design engineer’s needs. They literately can come to us for anything. But honestly the one thing we hear from all of our customers? Responsiveness. Whether it’s quotes and samples or a simple phase noise plot, ECS measures our response time in minutes not in hours or days. We pride ourselves on the incredible response time of our internal sales team. We have dedicated technical support. It’s available real time all over the world; We’ve got offices in the Americas, Europe, and Asia. And technical support covers all means of topics from design services to schematic and board reviews, board characterizations to simple load cap values. Our sales and technical support teams are here to support our customers and sales channel partners. We think that’s a bid difference.

Baker: No question about it. I think in this world we all want answers, and we want them immediately. I think we’ve been trained by that with the internet to some extent so having a live body that’s constantly ready to be there and answer questions at a moment’s notice will really help us as electrical engineers. We want to get our designs done, we want to get on to the next thing, and we want to get them done well. Having an expert available to us at a moment’s notice is an absolutely incredible thing.

Meaney: Well, it’s how we measure ourselves.

Baker: Yep, yep. Wonderful. Well David thank you so much for talking to me a little bit and giving me some insights into some of the new developments in the timing industry and where things are going. From my perspective, this has been very eye opening on how I, as an engineer, am going to be taking a look at designs and how I should be considering the timing solutions. Looking at some of the details in the different crystals that I’m selecting, the timing solutions that I’m selecting, that could possibly make my systems better.

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Founded in 1980, ECS Inc. International has grown to become one of the most recognized and experienced manufacturers of frequency control management products in the world.
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