Successful Systems Integration Requires Multiple Commitments

Very few test engineers can boast to be completely up to date on all the latest advancements in instrumentation technology and test-related software environments. And yet, proficiency in disciplines as varied as fixturing, network design, data-base management, and statistical quality control is essential to devise test systems that cope cost-effectively with today’s complex electronic products.

Most test professionals are competent in several—but not all—of these technologies. Until recently, companies relied on in-house groups of experts to design, select, and integrate needed test facilities. Now, more and more systems-integration tasks are being performed by outside contractors. Some of the reasons are:

The difficulty to attract and keep gainfully occupied enough talented engineers with adequate collective knowledge to perform systems-integration tasks quickly and efficiently.

The desire to focus internal resources on the company’s product line and not on nonrelated, although essential, support activities.

The need to supplement internal resources to achieve schedule commitments.

Integration Services Providers

Companies performing test-integration tasks include instrument and ATE suppliers as well as professional test integrators and consultants. Suppliers are well positioned to perform these tasks since they have a pool of talent deeply immersed in instrumentation and test technology. Professional integrators and consultants are equally as good because most are veterans of systems integration on military or avionics contracts.

The motivation to perform systems integration stems from the desire to:

Help customers cope with increased instrument complexities.

Ensure that users fully benefit from instrument investments.

Increase instrument sales.

Obtain increased systems-integration business because it is interesting and benefits users and integrators alike.

For instance, companies such as Racal Instruments and Ascor perform integration services because their VXI product lines include mainframes, power supplies, and switch cards, the essential ingredients of instrumentation systems and ATE. Geotest integrates PC-based test systems using its ATEasy software, a GTXI instrumentation chassis, I/O boards, and ancillary equipment.

“Ascor actively seeks custom work and does a great deal of what we categorize as subsystem integration,” said Robert R. Varo Jr., the company’s director of sales and marketing. “We will integrate a customer’s selected VXI chassis and modules regardless of their origin, wire the receiver mechanism (MAC Panel and Virginia Panel), and design and manufacture the interface test adapters. Normally, some Ascor switches are involved and quite often an Ascor VXI chassis as well.”

“Most of the systems integration tasks we perform address functional production-test requirements,” stated a company representative at Geotest. “We also offer a rugged PC platform for field and line-replaceable-unit test applications which, for instance, tests the weapon system on Apache helicopters.”

Tektronix offers a range of support options to meet these types of customer inquiries:

A basic integration service is provided to help customers select instruments and bundle them with a Tektronix Intelliframe™ mainframe and a Slot-0 controller. If desired, Tektronix also integrates the system, sets module addresses, and loads drivers and soft front panels.

This task would be performed by Tektronix’ Basic Racking Service. The customer selects a rack, mainframe, Slot 0, and VXI modules and specifies the power supply, power controller, display device, and any other hardware required. Software integration is automatically included with this level of service.

Tektronix has developed a network of Value Added Reseller Synergy Partners who provide custom integration services. The partners are selected for their expertise and capabilities in software development, turnkey solutions, and post-sale support.

Hewlett-Packard has been integrating systems for customers for many years, much of it done by individual HP manufacturing divisions to leverage each division’s test and measurement products, “In the past few years, however, HP has increased its focus on systems integration as a business in its own right,” said Larry Rushing, business development manager of the Solutions Services Division of HP. “HP’s System Services Division now is comprised of more than 1,800 personnel worldwide.”

Services provided by HP, according to Jenny Hopkins, integrated solutions systems manager of the Solutions Services Division, include:

Test-process analysis and related engineering studies.

Test-system requirements and functional specifications.

Rack and cabling services.

Fixture design.

Custom electronics design.

Turnkey software and systems.

Training and support.

Required User Actions

After you decide to have an integrator provide you with a partial or complete test system, the first task is to formalize the requirements. This is followed by establishing the selection criteria needed to evaluate the suitability of potential integration-services providers.

Before entering into a contract, a detailed statement of work (SOW) must be prepared and managerial interrelationships defined. Test-system design often must start before the UUT design is completed. Typical actions required at this stage were enumerated by Ms. Hopkins and Karen Hall, advanced integrated solutions product manager at the HP Integrated Systems Division:

Articulate dependencies such as schedule and resources.

Produce a comprehensive requirements definition or work with the integrator to develop one. Address schedule, terms, conditions, and expected system performance.

Approach test-system creation as a partnership with the systems integrator, with both parties openly discussing trade-offs, risks, and strategies to manage risks.

Set up a structured management relationship (assign specific management roles, responsibility, authority).

Establish a clear point of contact for communications.

Be willing to participate in thorough design reviews at the integrator’s site.

Ensure that the systems integrator has access to the right people in a timely manner.

Provide the systems integrator with support facilities at your site.

Don’t use a time-and-material arrangement unless necessary. It is better to subdivide the project into smaller elements that can be bid at fixed prices.

Tie payments to deliverables and specific milestones.

Whether you enter into a fixed-price or a time-and-material contract with the systems integrator, subsequent engineering or work-scope changes will require renegotiation. A precise SOW is especially helpful here since it establishes unambiguous initial boundaries for both parties.

“The SOW limits the customer’s ability to change the contract scope,” admitted Mr. Varo of Ascor. “However, this is not to say that an integrator is not willing to work with the customer to achieve the desired results. But, the SOW tends to keep a fence around the project which often is essential for its satisfactory completion. The SOW actually helps in the administration of the change process.”

Maintaining regular communications is essential during the project-execution phase, not only to monitor progress, but also to determine whether the systems integrator is experiencing unforeseen difficulties. Here again, close cooperation benefits both parties.

Integrator’s Actions

“To supply the best system solution and minimize risk for our customers, it is important to follow a structured approach,” said Karen Lamoree, vice president of Cottonwood Technology Group. “We offer a two-phase project implementation using a proven execution model, starting with an investigation phase (I-Phase) which is performed at a fixed price.

“During the I-Phase, a system requirement document is produced which defines requirements, deadlines, and budgets. It distinguishes between wants and needs,” Ms. Lamoree continued. “Following the I-Phase, Cottonwood provides a proposal for the program execution phase which includes system design, hardware and software development, system integration, documentation, training, and maintenance.”

Most systems integrators assert that it is desirable, if not essential, to work with a potential customer to analyze the test needs. “This allows the integrator to understand the real, rather than the perceived, requirements,” said Tim Ostrosky, integration business manager at Racal. “It also maximizes the likelihood of customer satisfaction by making sure that he is getting what he needs at the best possible price without over- or under-specifying the test system.”

Subsequent to completion of the test-requirements analysis, configuration aids provided by the systems integrator are useful for equipment selection and further task definitions. Tektronix, for instance, furnishes a configuration workbook that steps you through the process of choosing an appropriate mainframe, Slot-0 device, and VXI instruments. Racal Instruments provides the Freedom Series Designer software which simplifies equipment selection and helps assure accurate pricing.

Applications and Implementations


contacted several systems integrators to determine the types of applications for which they are currently performing integration activities and the configurations most often chosen. The applications included—in decreasing order—automotive subassembly test, avionics, communications, military, space system or subsystem test, and component test.

The most popular test-system configuration was VXI followed by rack-and-stack and hybrid implementations, such as VXI or PCs combined with IEEE 488 instruments. Configurations consisting of multiple benchtop instruments and a controller were next. VME was used in only one application.

The computers used to control the systems were PCs, with one exception where a workstation was used. The preferred PC configuration was the embedded VXI format, followed by external PCs connected via IEEE 488 plug-in cards. Next were external PCs connected via MXI and embedded industrial PCs. Some systems used embedded single-board computers. External PCs connected via parallel port and PC bus extender cards rounded out the list of computer configurations.

The operating system most often chosen was Windows 3.x/95, with Windows NT and UNIX next, followed by DOS. In test software, LabWindows/CVI was the most popular followed by LabVIEW, HP VEE, ATEasy, TestPoint, and ATLAS. Many systems used combinations of these test-oriented programs in conjunction with Microsoft’s Visual Basic or with C or C++.

Choosing the Integrator

While most systems integrators provide test systems for a variety of applications, others concentrate on a particular segment of the electronics industry. Similarly, some integrators have a special expertise in a specific implementation method, such as VXI. Depending on your needs, you may be best served by an integrator with a wide range of implementation experience or a specialist.

Optimally, systems integrators should have experience in systems that perform tests comparable to those required for your UUTs. A history of successes with similar projects is equally significant. Other important selection criteria, as identified by HP’s Ms. Hall, include proven project-planning expertise, evidence of a customer-centered business focus, flexibility, confidentiality, and worldwide support capabilities.

The importance of customer support was emphasized by Gregory Davis, product marketing manager for the VXI product line at Tektronix. “The level of service that will be available next month or next year may determine whether your production line could be down for one hour or for one week when the test system eventually fails,” he pointed out.

Cost, of course, always is important. “For systems that don’t require fast processing, it certainly makes sense to let the integrator choose components that are slower but still capable of performing the required tests. This results in significant cost savings,” added Mr. Davis. “The same is true for the required precision and accuracy of measurements.”

Another possibility for minimizing acquisition costs is to select an integrator who does not object to using any of your applicable test equipment. “We usually request a list of test resources that already exist at the customer’s facility,” said James Slemp, president of Radical Systems. “By using equipment in place, cost and lead times are often greatly reduced.”

But hardware is only one cost ingredient. Software costs often dominate. The end-user’s requirements—primarily influenced by UUT complexity, expected test throughput, and the training and experience of the test technicians—will determine the extent of computer power, programming ease, and automation that must be provided.

“Software selection usually is a function of the end-user’s preferences of computer platform, operating system, and programming language,” commented Ms. Hopkins of HP. “The complexity of the software tasks is what often drives cost much more than the hardware itself.” To rein in this potential major cost component, select an integrator who not only is familiar with relevant software products, but who also can work with you to determine the optimum software solution for your company’s environment and application.


These companies provided information for this feature:

Ascor (510) 490-2300

C&H Technologies (512) 251-1171

Cimtek Automation Systems (905) 847-8811

Cottonwood Technology Group (888) 284-8378

Geotest (800) 330-9774

Hewlett-Packard (800) 452-4844

Microcraft (919) 872-2272

Racal Instruments (800) 722-2528

Radical Systems Engineering (205) 883-9791

Tektronix (800) 426-2200



Copyright 1998 Nelson Publishing Inc.

I don’t have the time or the resources to develop my own test system.

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