The opportunities and challenges for test-equipment manufacturers have never been greater. Traditional T&M instruments are blazing a path toward greater performance capabilities for faster, wider-bandwidth, and more accurate test equipment for high-speed, gigahertz-rate, serial data buses and an expanding RF communications arena. Also, new market opportunities beckon instrument manufacturers to come forth with test gear that suits their needs. These include the consumer, automotive, power, industrial, medical, and scientific markets.
At the same time, automatic-test-equipment (ATE) manufacturers face a dual challenge: reining in rising ATE systems costs while meeting the challenges of ever-increasing IC complexities and densities with very large pin counts. Conventional instruments like oscilloscopes, analyzers, multimeters, and signal sources are facing up to the testing challenge. Instrument advances give design engineers the most detailed look ever at the performance of the circuits they're designing and the behavior of their signals. Such issues as signal integrity, noise, and jitter are now undergoing a "rediscovery" of sorts.
Traditional instruments are being tailored to meet different market needs. Oscilloscopes that address the test requirements of the industrial power market are the latest rage. Handheld multimeters, temperature instruments, and infrared (IR) instruments for use in industrial settings are hot too.
PC-based instruments are being used more with software development programs to better handle cost-effective testing as well as meet demands from new market applications. These platforms take advantage of the PC's latest processing power and are hooking into various local-area networks (LANs) for programming hardware setups.
Some of these pc-based applications lie in the automotive sector. Demanding instrumentation setups such as telematics, airbags, sensors of all types, and displays are at once cost-effective and up to the task.
Pursuit of leading-edge technologies like flat-panel displays, microelectromechanical systems (MEMS), and nanotechnology is also on T&M companies' plates. Instruments for these technologies are crucial, enabling researchers in these fields to advance the technology.
In addition, reliance on software has never been greater. Software is simplifying the T&M user interface, helping to expedite testing tasks. The trend is toward a greater software role for controlling and configuring standard hardware platforms.
CUTTING PER-PIN TEST COSTS
The name of the game in testing is to lower per-pin costs for ATE systems. Climbing pin counts on system-on-a-chip (SoC) devices make this increasingly difficult, though. Nevertheless, ATE manufacturers are reaching into their knowledge arsenals with more sophisticated test boundary-scan and chain-scanning techniques. Design-for-test (DFT) and built-in self-test (BIST) methodologies are standard features on nearly every ATE system on the market.
The more flexibility in ATE system design, the better. Users can reconfigure existing open-architecture ATE platforms for different end-user requirements without the recurring need for major capital investments on the user's part. But ATE manufacturers are only willing to open up their architectures so far, because then they will feel their competitive edge is being revealed to other ATE makers.
Software is playing a starring role for automatic test-program generation. Leading-edge software methods permit the software to be reused and cut down on the overall ATPG development cycle.
Ultimately, software will take over the major role in ATE system operation, leading to synthetic instrumentation (SI). An SI architecture is software-centric. A specific software program from a PC or mainframe drives general-purpose nonspecific hardware elements, usually over a LAN. The software lets users configure the hardware to specific testing needs without having to rely on a collection of individual oscilloscopes, analyzers, multimeters, signal sources, and the like.
The SI concept is receiving a good ear from the T&M industry, which is already finding it harder to produce more cost-effective ATE systems using present test-system design methodologies. Aeroflex, Agilent Technologies, DRS Technologies, Honeywell, Phase Matrix, and Teradyne are all heavily involved in coming up with SI-based ATE systems.