The test-and-measurement segment of the electronics industry is a curious animal, forced to be a leader and a follower at the same time. T&M providers must carefully follow trends in the market, delivering the tools designers require to ensure their designs comply with communications protocols.
But that means staying ahead of the curve, supplying designers with equipment that has enough bandwidth and memory to get the job done in reasonable time. That also means taking a leadership position in the industry in terms of engineering prowess.
One thing is for sure—today’s designs, whether wired or wireless, are moving a lot more data in a given period of time than they used to. For serial data links, speeds are rising quickly. In the wireless domain, the emerging USB 3.0 standard whizzes along at 5 Gbits/s. Likewise, the PCI Express (PCIe) 3.0 standard specifies a transfer rate of 8 Gtransfers/s with a data rate of 1 Gbyte/s.
Verifying and debugging communications channels with such raw speed makes the handling all of that data a particularly rigorous challenge. It translates into very large databases that designers want to ferret through quickly to unravel complex timing- and frequency-related issues.
Nonetheless, the test and measurement industry must be able to keep up with it all. Many of the impending challenges it faces stem from the relentless demand for, and reliance on, wireless technology, as well as from the development of standards such as 3GPP Long-Term Evolution (LTE) and Mobile Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access (WiMAX).
NEXT-GENERATION WIRELESS STANDARDS • LTE provides a framework for increasing capacity, improving spectrum efficiency and cell-edge performance, and reducing latency. Mobile WiMAX is generally more immune to interference. It uses bandwidth more efficiently and allows for higher data rates over longer distances.
Change has also come from the use of multiple-input multiple-output (MIMO) technology, which plays a critical role in making wireless communications systems based on LTE and Mobile WiMAX work. In fact, MIMO, a capacity-enhancing, multi-antenna technology designed to bring about a two- to four-fold increase in throughput without adding frequency spectrum, will likely be employed in all upcoming 4G wireless communications systems.
While these exciting technology developments offer compelling new functionality to consumers and service providers alike, they come at the price of increased complexity and, as a result, tougher measurement challenges. Addressing these challenges has led to some fairly significant T&M advances. Much more of this will come during the ramp-up to LTE deployment over the next couple of years.
MORE TEST GOING VIRTUAL • An obvious trend to watch is the appearance of more specialized instrumentation, particularly for high-speed serial interfaces and wireless protocols. But so-called synthetic or virtual instrumentation will continue to grow, especially as multicore hardware becomes ever more prevalent (see the figure).
Multicore architectures enable virtual instruments to quickly explore variations on end-system dataflow paths. They also can, in some cases, take the place of specialized instruments, although that may not always be the best approach when extremely high-performance T&M hardware is required.
Whether in a box or virtual, test instrumentation will continue to become easier to use as well. It’s important to note that not all users of T&M hardware/software are necessarily highly experienced EEs. Many users are less welltrained technicians or factory-floor personnel. For most of these kinds of users, it’s critical that the path to a successful measurement is well-defined and relatively simple.
Contract manufacturers, another large class of T&M consumers, want to be sure their instrumentation investment is safe from job to job and project to project. So even as high-end instruments become increasingly specialized, T&M equipment vendors will keep producing and improving their lower-cost lines of general-purpose instruments that can serve a broad variety of end uses.