By providing a complete, pre-tested circuit, a reference design saves substantial time and effort and minimizes design risks.
Reference designs have always been prized as handy blueprints from which you can more quickly develop your designs. Increasingly, they’re not just desirable but mandatory to make the sale. It’s easy for us gray-hairs to rant about how designers are getting lazy, or they just don’t make engineers like they used to… but the truth is, as competition increases and design cycles compress, designers are just busier. Anything that speeds up a design is welcome—and reference designs fit the bill perfectly.
Today’s engineers have broader skillsets than their counterparts who began their careers a few decades ago. Back in those days, it was simply more common for engineers to develop areas of specialization. Today’s engineers come up the ranks having learned a wide range of techniques: biasing transistor-level circuits, programming an Arduino or Raspberry Pi board, using sophisticated synthesis tools, and understanding high-level hardware description languages.
However, they may not have as much exposure to the nuances of analog transistor design. Mastering every aspect of the art of electronic design may no longer be tenable.
Figure 1 Today’s engineers are busier than ever, managing multiple projects on aggressive timelines. Source: Maxim Integrated
By providing a complete, pre-tested circuit, a reference design saves substantial time and effort and minimizes design risks. Engineers can choose to copy a circuit, drop it into their CAD tool, and move directly to the PCB design stage or use it as a starting point and customize as needed.
Either way, they can get, for instance, a complete power supply circuit or a complete signal chain from a reference design, rather than burn time selecting passive components and designing the circuit from scratch.
The key for semiconductor vendors, of course, is to develop reference designs that engineers can trust and rely upon. All of the parts should be carefully selected, tested, and be ready to go once in the engineer’s hands. Any point of failure risks the engineer’s loyalty.
Of course, a great reference design starts with great chips and is complemented by great field support. Any given chip can spawn a family of reference designs, optimized for different targets such as design size and efficiency. This brings greater efficiency to the reference design development process—and a larger portfolio of reference designs for customers to choose from.
At Maxim Integrated, we’ve built a Reference Design Center where engineers can find hundreds of validated designs that can be downloaded right away and customized or used as is. Then there are fully assembled reference design boards. The options include individual ICs, as well as subsystems and full system designs.
For instance, Maxim’s power supply reference designs support the most common topologies—buck, boost, isolated, isolated/non-isolated, and flyback—and are available in various configurations and polarities. Each of these reference designs comes with standardized documentation, including a datasheet with detailed design notes, verification test results, schematic, bill of materials (BOM), and PCB artwork.
Figure 2 Maxim Integrated’s MAXREFDES1165 reference design provides a 32-channel industrial digital I/O module with 16 digital inputs and 16 digital outputs. Source: Maxim Integrated
At Maxim Integrated, engineers build and thoroughly test each reference design to ensure their performance. By reducing risks while enabling a faster design process, reference designs continue to demonstrate their worth to developers who are tackling increasingly complex projects with tight turnaround times.
David Dwelley is vice president and chief technical officer (CTO) at Maxim Integrated. Prior to joining Maxim Integrated, Dwelley spent 29 years at Analog Devices/Linear Technology in various technical leadership roles. He holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from the University of California, Berkeley.