Traditional test and measurement instruments—oscilloscopes, logic and spectrum analyzers, multimeters, and signal sources—haven't lagged behind the advances occurring in electronic device technology. In some cases, they're exceeding the T&M needs of many designers.
Electronic-circuit data rates moving to gigahertz speeds have wrought various signal-integrity issues. Sophisticated DSP algorithms help ultra-high-speed T&M instruments measure more accurately to compensate for the shortcomings of the real-world components the instruments comprise. Still, in dealing with data rates of tens of gigahertz, test engineers are beginning to ask if they're looking at the "real" signal or if they're seeing lots of noise and jitter.
High-speed serial data rates have reached so high, specialized probes are now the norm for leading-edge oscilloscopes and logic analyzers. These probes have minimal impedance loading on the circuits they're measuring. Also, real-time spectrum analyzers are arming RF circuit designers with seriously high levels of signal resolution. They will remain indispensible T&M tools.
T&M equipment is gradually finding its way into a host of emerging end-user markets. As electronics technology becomes more embedded in products for consumer, automotive, medical, communications, power, industrial, and chemical areas, there's a growing need for T&M instruments to serve these markets. The research environment also now craves T&M instruments to support leading-edge technology developments. Not to be left out are scientific and laboratory instruments for flat-panel displays, sensors, and nanotechnology.
The challenge to meet these market demands isn't solely in the consumer sector. Technology convergence is the norm for automotive telematics systems that include navigation, AM/FM stereo, CD, satellite radio, DVD, TV, cell-phone, and PC/Web/e-mail capabilities (see the figure). On the horizon lie automotive digital video recorders and biometric ignitions. Remote diagnostics already is available on many high-end cars.
Last year, Agilent Technologies and VXI Technology introduced LXI (LAN-based eXtensions for Instrumentation). This next-generation instrumentation platform combines the best of GPIB instruments with VXI modules. It's designed to provide state-of-the-art measurements in a small package at a cost-effective price. So far, 15 T&M companies worldwide have joined the LXI Consortium.
Developments like LXI point to the large role being played by PC-based T&M. These PCs act as hosted instruments that use software connected to the instrumentation hardware via a high-speed LAN link. Also, the power field has become so pervasive that specific T&M instruments are coming to light with the power designer in mind.
T&M instrument manufacturers are using software more as well, allowing for easier user configurability of a test system and more cost-effective operation. Ultimately, synthetic instruments will prevail. Entirely controlled by software, users will then configure the instrument's hardware platform to suit their testing needs. National Instruments, which coined the slogan "the software is the instrument," foresees PC-based application-development programs like its LabView as examples of software's dominating role in T&M.
The emerging field of automotive telematics is creating a fresh need for new test equipment to handle the convergence of all signals and graphics. (Source: National Instruments)