Test engineering is evolving rapidly to keep up with the fast-paced demand for expanding test requirements while coexisting with unprecedented business constraints impacting time-to-market, cost of test, and reduced staffing levels. Test engineers and managers have been on this business and technology treadmill for some time now. However, it appears to be reaching a level of velocity that even the most skilled test engineering teams cannot maintain.
A perfect example of this growing test engineering challenge that everyone can relate to is the evolution of the smart phone. What began as an innocent radio transceiver for sending and receiving electronic voice data has grown wildly in the past decade to represent more functionality and system level complexity that anyone could have ever imagined.
Similar system level complexity is emerging across all industries and applications as devices become more intelligent through the use of embedded software. One common element enabling this explosion of device functionality and scalability is software. A software-designed device architecture has become the ultimate virtual canvas for today’s electronic companies and designers to easily expand and adapt their products to meet consumer and commercial demand for their products.
However, this proliferation of functionality and rapid scalability is wreaking havoc on most test engineering teams trying to keep up. Hence, something must change quickly before our top test athletes reach terminal velocity on the test engineering treadmill.
The Next Leap Forward
Fortunately, leading test & measurement companies have kept pace with evolving test engineering requirements over the past century to assist scientists and engineers in crossing these major technology and business chasms. In the 1920s, General Radio introduced state-of-the-art vacuum tube instrumentation to open a new window of measurement innovation and productivity. In the mid-1960s, Hewlett Packard (HP) led in the release of new digital instrumentation using IC technology, greatly increasing the measurement performance and reliability of instrumentation.
Based on our observations of history and the emerging industry trends, it appears the test & measurement industry is about to undergo the next in a series of major advances, which take place roughly every 45 years. This new transition is toward the use of software-designed instrumentation for automated test systems (Fig. 1).
Hence, as most new devices under test are becoming software-enabled, so too is the next-generation of modular, software-designed instrumentation. The resulting test systems are moving beyond stacks of traditional boxed instruments connected via GPIB, serial, LAN, or USB to much more highly integrated, modular systems of heterogeneous processing including a mix of processors, FPGAs, and GPUs and a wide variety of analog, digital, RF, and mixed-signal I/O required to test the growing functionality of today’s devices.
The reality of designing such complex automated test systems based on previous-generation tools and staffing is very daunting for most test engineering teams, especially since the complexity of the test systems often mirrors that of the actual product design itself and the number of resources and depth of low-level knowledge on most test engineering teams is less than that of their design counterparts. Therefore, a key component to enable today’s test engineering teams to meet these challenges is a new class of system design software built specifically for test engineers.
Test system design software enables today’s test engineers to quickly design, prototype, and deploy complex, highly integrated solutions incorporating the latest commercial technologies and measurement and control I/O with a fraction of the time, cost, and staffing historically required to complete the project.
System design software, such as National Instruments’ LabVIEW, enables test engineers to do this by abstracting the unnecessary complexity of many system-level details such as low-level HDL programming, real-time operating systems, precise timing and synchronization handshaking between I/O devices, and advanced mathematics and analysis required in today’s standards and IP testing.
Six Core Elements
Based on our 35-year experience in creating software-enabled instrumentation systems, complete system design software for test & measurement comprises six core elements: rich user interfaces, built-in math & analysis libraries, integration of multiple models of computation (i.e. graphical, text based, math scripts, HDL, state charts, etc.), use of commercial technologies, ability to deploy to multiple targets (i.e. CPUs, FPGAs, GPUs, etc), and measurement and control I/O (Fig. 2).
As of today, LabVIEW is the only graphical system design software that integrates all six of these elements with advanced timing and synchronization. Its graphical nature also enables engineers to quickly begin using the system design software to solve their most urgent challenges, regardless of how big or small. Proper training and design architectures are provided to assist with more complex applications to ensure a robust solution.
There is no doubt that system design software for test engineering is going to play a greater role in test system design moving forward. It simply has to for the industry to evolve to meet the necessary technical and business requirements.
I strongly recommend taking a closer look at your current and future test engineering strategies for software and complex system development. Once you compare the differences of using traditional test engineering design approaches and tools to the next generation of system design software and modular, software-designed instrumentation, I believe you will firmly agree that the next 45 years of instrumentation has truly begun.
And as with any new fundamental shift of technology and approaches, it creates an entirely new world of opportunity for you and your company to become more competitive and differentiated in the marketplace.