The test and measurement (T&M) industry is struggling to keep up with various challenges: the battle to lower testing costs; an increasing number of versatile test systems' reliance on the PC; and growing IC device complexities and performance levels that crave more cost-effective T&M solutions. The emergence of many new applications like telecom, automotive, biomedical, and consumer and optical electronics demands a new breed of testing methods. What's the bottom line? Users demand greater functionality and flexibility from their T&M tool and at a cost-effective price.
That's a tall order indeed. Testing is taking a bigger bite out of a device's fabrication price tag. It probably won't get any better as devices get even smaller and more sophisticated. Still, product design and development must push on, which means that a way to test these products will always be needed.
Lowering instrument costs is one of the biggest challenges facing T&M instrument manufacturers. This is difficult to do, particularly for instruments used during the development phase of sophisticated microprocessors and system-on-a-chip (SoC) devices.
BLURRING THE PC-INSTRUMENT LINE
The line between PC-based measurement systems and measurement systems based on PCs within them is progressively blurring. As a result, T&M equipment makers are joining forces with those who offer T&M board-level hardware and software products on one's PC. Leading oscilloscope manufacturers now supply instrument control and data-analysis functions designed for PCs pre-installed into their equipment. For example, Windows-based graphical programming languages like LabView and MathLab now come on all oscilloscopes from Tektronix (www.tektronix.com). Programs like Microsoft Excel are also becoming available on test equipment.
Windows isn't necessarily the only game in town when it comes to working in a T&M environment. Linux is proving to be an asset here as well. Many Linux proponents tout it as a more reliable and stable alternative to Windows in test applications. It also is more flexible because it's easier to customize than other operating systems. Besides running on desktop, laptop and notebook, and single-board computers, Linux runs on embedded computer systems. In fact, several manufacturers of data-acquisition cards for PC-based measurements support Linux with drivers in their product offerings.
Graphical programming languages have become prevalent in the test arena, but text-based programming remains a useful tool for test engineers. Sometimes, text-based programming is simpler than graphical programming. It depends on the test application. Text programming languages like C, C++, Java, Visual Basic, Pascal, and .Net are proving valuable in the T&M arena.
One of the biggest drivers in test cost reductions is software that vastly simplifies the operator-instrument interface. Menu-driven pushbutton instrument front panels are now the norm for many oscilloscopes and logic analyzers. There's no longer a need to fiddle with timebase knobs and trigger level adjustments. It's all highly automated.
T&M instruments have also started to introduce improved interfaces. Traditional T&M equipment has long been available with parallel and serial interfaces to connect to each other and PCs, including the GPIB (general-purpose interface bus). Yet a Keithley Instruments survey called "Sixth Survey of Measurement Trends" (available at www.keithley.com) says that many instruments now come with USB, IEEE-1394 (FireWire), and Ethernet ports (Fig. 1). This is particularly handy in a production environment where engineers can now connect their T&M wares to networks like Ethernet.
Another study by Venture Development Corp., "Data Acquisition Product Requirements and Usage Trends," says that USB, Ethernet, FireWire, and wireless data networks will be used much more significantly in data-acquisition products. It's conceivable that future instruments will build in wireless-LAN (local-area network) ports as wireless communications proliferates.
One example of the trend toward greater functionality involves oscilloscopes. Leading oscilloscopes now provide traditional scope functions and the ability to test both bit-error rates (BERs) and jitter, two important parameters for communications systems. Previously, separate instruments were necessary for BER and jitter testing.
Not to be outdone, manufacturers of instruments dedicated to BER and jitter testing are adding oscilloscope functions to their products (Fig. 2) and even multifunctionality (Fig. 3). This trend underscores the requirements that new applications are placing on T&M instrument manufacturers.
One of the most promising areas for T&M equipment suppliers is the telecom sector. Despite its horrendous downturn, many instrument makers remain committed to this market and continue to churn out telecom T&M products. The T&M industry must ready itself for the telecom arena and many other areas, including biomedical, automotive, and industrial electronics, where measurements of optical and magnetic properties are just as important as those for currents, voltages, and frequencies. Of particular note is the rapidly emerging field of nanotechnology, where test-equipment designers will face heady challenges as they attempt to measure current and voltage levels at the atomic and molecular scales.