Test-and-measurement challenges seem to intensify every year—faster circuits, larger ICs, new standards, increased complexity, shorter time-to-market, and, perhaps most importantly, shrinking margins. Never fear, though, because the T&M industry continually rises to the occasion by delivering advanced instrumentation that prunes away at these potentially thorny issues.
The guys who design the latest test equipment hang out on the leading edge of engineering. But what do they use to test their own extreme designs? It's still an analog world, yet T&M equipment designers create the most far-out proprietary hardware while steadily increasing the amount of software in their designs.
The usual suspects still lead the way in new T&M equipment development, and they will influence the introduction of new products. These drivers include:
- High-speed serial buses: Gigabit-rate buses like PCI Express, SATA, SAS, RapidIO, and HDMI, as well as old standbys like 10Gigabit Ethernet, SONET, and Fibre Channel, are rapidly being adopted in most new designs.
- Wireless test: As wireless chips and products flood the market, there's an ever-increasing need to find new and better ways to test microwave products, cell phones, and exotic technologies like multiple-input multiple-output (MIMO) (see "10 Trends Keep Wireless T&M Vendors On Their Toes").
- New and updated standards: Almost everything follows a standard today, so testing is designed around meeting the standard and com- plying with certification requirements.
- IC advances: Adoption of new smaller geometries is faster than ever. With 90 nm just coming into its own, work already is under way to make 65- and 45-nm chips. That means higher speeds, increased integration, a greater number of pins, and more complex packaging, creating a hellish test challenge.
- Increased pressure to test faster and cheaper: Production testing is the focus, as improvements can lead to time savings and economic benefits.
- Open-architecture ATE systems: Designers need open-architecture automated test equipment (ATE) systems that can be more quickly and easily reconfigured.
Trends In Progress
In its attempts to meet the test needs of design engineers and manufacturing test engineers, the T&M industry does a good job of staying ahead of the curve in identifying new test challenges and problems. Several trends lie ahead.
First, expect greater flexibility by using more software and programmability. Increased use of software is a decades-old trend, and one that's not fading. Next, we'll see more FPGAs in instruments.
Second, the use of design for test (DFT), built-in self-test (BIST), and revised and updated JTAG boundary-scan standards (including compression techniques) will get more play. All of these methods help test larger ICs and boards, including the more complex multiboard systems using them.
Third, synthetic instruments break the T&M process down into fundamental building blocks, such as digitizers, up/down converters, and ARB function generation, and assemble them with control software to perform some testing function. The idea is to create ATE or other test systems that can be reconfigured quickly for different tasks.
Synthetic instrumentation is akin to virtual instrumentation, but it isn't exactly the same. Major application areas include aerospace and the military, and it's quickly finding its way into ATE. The U.S. Department of Defense synthetic instrumentation initiative is driving its development.
New Growth Areas
Three growth areas are percolating within the T&M circle: modular instrumentation and the PXI movement, wireless test, and video and Internet Protocol TV (IPTV).
When it comes to modular instrumentation and PXI, GPIB and VXI systems still rule the roost. But watch PXI—it's seen 20% annual growth. And LXI instruments are receiving lots of attention, too (see "PXI And LXI Set The Table For A Tasty Test Buffet").
As for wireless test, new and everevolving standards, in addition to new technologies like software-defined radio (SDR), mesh networks, and MIMO, require fresh test methods.
Additionally, don't forget about video and audio, both of which are booming markets. HDTV is here and ascending rapidly. IPTV and video in cell phones are on the way. Video remains the most complex of all electronic systems; thus, better test equipment and methods are critical to help smooth the way.