Fuel gauging for all

August 19, 2016 // By Bakul Damle
As the pace of improvements in traditional consumer electronics such as smartphones and tablets is starting to plateau, many creative design engineers are focusing their attention on inventing the next big thing.

Some of these inventions are taking the form of connected devices, taking advantage of feeding data into easy-to-access databases over the internet, with the possibility of analyzing trends using big data analytics. Many of these devices also have the convenience of being untethered from the wall by running on batteries, or having a battery backup in case of power failure.

Compared to the traditional way that organizations have developed products - in big teams with dedicated specialized engineers for every development task - the emphasis is increasingly on keeping the teams small and agile in order to bring these devices to market as quickly as possible and seeing how they are received in order to make further investment decisions into that product area. There are also many start-ups with creative engineers whose core competency is not necessarily electronic circuit design, but more along the lines of application development software or industrial design. These engineers sometimes view electronics design as something that they need to bring their ideas to fruition, with the software as the key element that distinguishes them from their competition. And then there is a growing maker movement, in which hobbyists are inventing things for sheer pleasure or to pursue their passion for a particular personal cause.

The intricacies of battery management might be very far from these sets of creative minds. They just need something that works well out of the box and is really easy to implement to go to production. Traditional methods of fuel gauging involve a power or battery specialist on the team to work with the fuel gauge vendor in order to find a suitable model that can be used with their battery. This often involves characterizing the battery under various load and temperature conditions, if the specialized battery test equipment including temperature chambers is available, or shipping the batteries to the fuel gauge vendor for characterization in their lab.

This can involve real as well as intangible costs. Simply the logistics of shipping the lithium ion batteries have come under increased scrutiny for air transport due to safety issues, as well as the time involved for shipments. Once the batteries are with the vendor, it can take a couple of weeks to fully characterize and model the batteries under the various load and temperature conditions of interest. Only then can the system designer plug the custom battery model into the fuel gauge to start running their evaluation and finalize the design.

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