Taking the Measure of the Instrumentation Industry

Communications was mentioned repeatedly during the interviews EE-Evaluation Engineering editors conducted with top managers in the test and measurement industry. There is no doubt that rapidly increasing internet use and the development of new networks, switches, and protocols are driving sales of test equipment.

Improved PC performance has enabled increased data acquisition capabilities. In addition to serving the traditional markets, continuing pressure to reduce production costs has led to greater use of data acquisition systems for recording manufacturing process variables.

Some of the companies we talked to address all aspects of product development, from design through manufacturing and on to installation and maintenance. Others are more specialized. However, they all agree that, for their businesses to grow, they must provide solutions to help their customers succeed.

Communications Growth Drives Test Instrument Development and Sales

The expansion of internet use is cited by Dan Terpack, president of Tektronix’s Measurement Business Division, “as placing tremendous demands on the telecommunications networks for more bandwidth and on the access networks for more performance. We are seeing heavy investment in dense wavelength division multiplexing (DWDM) to increase the fiber-optic network capacity. Technologies such as asymmetric digital subscriber line (ADSL) will improve the performance of the access networks. Investment in both areas will contribute to the growth of the test instrumentation industry.”

Communications test tools are the fastest growing segment of the test and measurement market, according to Dick Van Saun, senior vice president and general manager of the Industrial Group at Fluke. “As people put the new technologies in place, there is a real demand for equipment to service them. When you put generic digital subscriber line (XDSL) and other technologies in place in the field, someone has to make sure they continue to work. That creates a need for the types of tools that Fluke makes,” he said.

Ned Barnholt, executive vice president and general manager of Hewlett-Packard’s measurement organization, uses the phrase information industry to include both the communications industry and the enterprise computing industry that accounts for much of the network traffic. “The information industry is the major driver of growth in electronics in general and, therefore, of the test and measurement business. The applications and services that go over those networks need a lot of measurement and instrumentation to manage data quality,” he said.

“From the point of view of the network operators, there are two test requirements. One is for low-cost portable products that do a very specific job, and the other is for network system products that provide measurement functionality embedded into the network itself,” he continued.

“For example, once people have access to real-time network measurements, they can decide to re-route traffic based upon their knowledge of who is using the network. Also, there is real-time fraud information available, so unauthorized users can be caught immediately,” Mr. Barnholt said.

Keithley Instruments’ core competencies include low-level measurements and signal conditioning. Communications companies are among their customers, but so are automotive and industrial companies. Joe Keithley, the president, takes a broad view of what it is that drives the instrumentation business. “Customer demand for the types of products that are being tested contributes to most of the test and measurement industry growth,” he said. “For example, a key cell-phone performance driver is battery life. The increase in unit volume of cell phones creates demand for more and higher-throughput battery test equipment.”

Instrument Trends

If you compared the comments made in the December 1997 EE-Evaluation Engineering article “What 1998 Will Bring in Instrumentation and Data Acquisition” to what was said this year, you wouldn’t find startling differences. However, the efforts to achieve ease of use, smarter instruments, and more application-specific instruments have intensified, in part enabled by internet software and higher levels of chip integration.

Even if an instrument is not going to be operated remotely, embedded internet software can leverage the speed and power of remote computers. The common look and feel of browser-type interfaces are big reasons that their use and acceptance are forecast to grow quickly.

Improved ease of use is necessary if instruments are to remain usable at all, given the increasingly complex capabilities that users are being required to control. Last year, HP’s Tom Voss discussed the ease of accessibility afforded by the Windows 95 GUI in the Infinium oscilloscopes. This year, Mr. Barnholt commented on the trend to restrict instrument functionality. Both approaches are attempts to cope with opposing requirements: the need to provide complex test and measurement capability packaged so that customers find the instrument easy to use.

Mr. Barnholt lists four customer-driven trends. “There is a move toward more application-specific instruments,” he said. “We continue to see instruments getting smarter, giving answers instead of just information, being more accurate because of software enhancements, and providing answers in the language of the user’s application.

“Many instruments are used in system applications. Today, there are LAN-connected instruments and instruments with ActiveX interfaces to make them easier to integrate into a software environment,” he continued.

“The fourth area is pressure on the cost of test. People want to see test functionality delivered just for their own needs. They look at test as a cost to be reduced. The challenge for the test industry is to look at where test adds value,” Mr. Barnholt concluded.

Another trend that all companies mentioned was the continuing adoption of computer interfaces by the instrumentation industry. “You are seeing the emergence of PCI, USB, and IEEE 1394 (Firewire) buses that connect instruments to computers,” said Mr. Keithley.

“Also, performance has increased in 1998 because of DSPs and a variety of new analog devices. New technology has enabled power sources to be packaged with the measuring instrument. An example is an integrated varistor tester for the automotive market,” he said.

Fluke’s Mr. Van Saun said, “We are finding ways to make fairly sophisticated pieces of test equipment be pretty easy to use, regardless of the skill level of the field-service technician. In the maintenance world, you are looking for troubleshooting answers. You presume that the system has worked correctly in the past, and you are trying to find out what’s wrong.”

“We introduced the ability to add JAVA applications to our oscilloscopes, to take over the oscilloscope and make it more application specific,” said Mr. Terpack of Tektronix. “Communications signals are very information-rich with a lot of high-frequency digital modulation. Our digital phosphor oscilloscope (DPO) technology presents information in all three dimensions, X, Y, and Z, to help designers working with these signals.”

Regarding CE safety ratings for instruments, Mr. Van Saun said, “Fluke believes that compliance with the safety standard is worthwhile because it causes us to design products that are safer for field personnel to use in high-energy environments. We are probably not at the leading edge of technology in terms of the most megahertz of speed or the smallest nanovolts of voltage resolution. We put together new and creative combinations of technologies that help field-service personnel get their jobs done more easily.”

Test Industry Trends

The strategic direction a company takes must be set decisively. But given the increasing rate of change affecting markets, technologies, and competitors, companies also must react quickly to new opportunities. Tektronix’s Mr. Terpack said, “We are positioning ourselves to be a stronger player in telecommunications test through investment, acquisitions, and partnerships. We’ve acquired the Microwave Logic Company and the Communications Test Equipment Division of Siemens and have alliances with both Advantest and Rohde and Schwarz.”

“We have chosen a few industries and within them a few applications which we would like to serve,” said Mr. Keithley. “We have dedicated marketing and engineering application teams. They support the salesman who works with the customer’s test engineer on both business and measurement problems. We want the customer to think of us as the expert who will help him as he develops next year’s products.”

“Consultative selling with a high level of applications knowledge isn’t enough,” he added. “You need to have a very quick turnaround time in development engineering to produce products that really do meet the customer’s need. You can only do that when you’re focused on a narrow range of applications supported by a set of platforms and technologies.”

HP’s Mr. Barnholt agreed. “We have to stay pretty flexible because standards continue to evolve, and we need to respond very quickly to the changes affecting our customers. But customers do want to see a growth path as they go forward and that we are committed to a particular platform for a period of time.

“We have offered new products that are really platforms to which we continue to add new capabilities. For example, we added wideband code division multiple access (WCDMA) capabilities to our signal-generator platform,” he continued.

Mr. Van Saun describes Fluke as being “slightly off-center from what many other test and measurement companies are like. We have moved away from so-called ‘traditional’ test and measurement and toward specializing in service, maintenance, and installation tools. Our products are used by the network maintenance technician in the bank, factory, hospital, school, or wherever the network is. And he has different needs from the design engineers. He has to make it work on-site.”

Globalization also is affecting these companies. It has improved access to new customers, and it also has exposed companies to new competitors. Two results have been increased competition and the need to meet more separate standards, leading to increased product testing.

Another effect of globalization has been the demand for more uniform customer support and pricing across many geographies. A customer that develops a prototype in one country and goes on to produce the product in many other countries expects consistent treatment from his suppliers, regardless of location. He also expects his test instrumentation to produce consistent measurements throughout his organization.

The Future

“You can look for Tektronix to continue to deliver high technology products that enable the application and deployment of leading-edge technologies,” said Mr. Terpack. “And then, over time, we will move that technology down in price, over a broader range of products that can be used in more applications than just design.”

“I think you’re going to see enhanced DSP capability and software applied to make measurements more meaningful to the customer,” commented Mr. Keithley. You may start with a voltage measurement, but that’s not what the customer is interested in. Presenting results in his terms allows him to say, ‘Ah, this is what it’s sensing. This is what it means to me.’ We help customers by providing more complete solutions.”

Hewlett-Packard’s Mr. Barnholt said, “We are continuing to focus on the communications market¾ all the communications areas including lightwave, wireless, digital, and the internet protocol (IP) market. We will certainly see new products in that arena, and we will have a number of new portable instruments. Portable instruments are an important, growing market, particularly in communications where technicians need to service all the new technology in the field.”

“You will see Fluke introducing instruments in our traditional areas,” Mr. Van Saun said. The ever-changing environment in the network world is causing the need for new variations of the tools that we sell. It may be that service technicians don’t actually need a new test tool, but the technologies on which they are working are shifting. It’s tough for the communications service providers and the network owners to keep up with ADSL, IDSN, XDSL, and so on.”

There is a real need for field-service personnel to connect their portable PCs to their test instruments to store data or to certify the work they have done. Indicating that more progress needs to be made toward an easy-to-use interface for installation and maintenance applications, Mr. Van Saun distinguished between today’s interfaces and “a really useful PC connection: one that just works instead of one that takes an engineer to operate it.”

PC Architecture Continues to Influence Data Acquisition

Even though the types of data acquisition applications are growing, we take comfort in knowing that measurement is still an art and that the laws of physics haven’t changed. But market growth usually brings some change. So to find out where data acquisition is headed, we interviewed three industry leaders to get their inputs.

According to Mr. Keithley, measurement capability still starts with the basics¾ a good measurement system. “Even with today’s sophisticated software,” he said, “you need accurate, precise, measurement for the whole thing to make sense.”

In data acquisition, you must be sure that the analog signal into the analog-to-digital converter is as good as it can be because the output cannot be more accurate than that. After achieving the desired accuracy, however, you may need to look at throughput.

Dr. Jim Truchard, president of National Instruments, thinks we need faster measurements and at low cost. “PC technology has made incredible advances in the last two decades,” he said, “but the measurement process seems to have made relatively little improvement over that same time span.”

Is It PC Data Acquisition?

When we refer to data acquisition, are we necessarily talking about the PC? “I tend to think of data acquisition as PC-based data acquisition,” said Mr. Keithley, “Some people use it to replace other recording technologies.”

According to Tom DeSantis, president of IOtech, the data acquisition industry historically has been driven by PC hardware and software architecture. “We have seen transitions from one PC bus to another and from one PC software operating system to another,” he said, “and data acquisition products have had to keep up.”

What the PC brings to data acquisition is familiar hardware and software environments, third-party suppliers, low cost, portability, and rapidly advancing technology. If you start with the PC, you get all these benefits.

In considering the PC and data acquisition as a unit, we would expect trends in the PC to be mirrored in data acquisition products. This is true because it is difficult to avoid references to PC buses, slots, and software when discussing data acquisition products.

Due to improvements in application software development, a trend has emerged. Mr. DeSantis of IOtech said that people still write programs in C, Visual Basic, or LabVIEW, but users of data acquisition products now prefer a configurable application to a programming language. “Customers want to be up and running right out of the box,” he said. “We allow them to enter setup parameters into a spreadsheet and start taking data.”

Tracking PC Improvements

A typical application for a data acquisition product is datalogging. But, with advancements in PC hardware and software architecture, new products are expanding the envelope beyond the traditional.

“Now, we can perform increased multichannel testing at a lower cost per channel, and soon we will be able to transfer the data more quickly on the USB,” said Mr. Keithley. “We offer a wide range of alternatives for people who want to measure one signal or hundreds of channels, whether they be thermocouples or faster changing signals.”

We all have witnessed the software migration in PC operating systems from DOS to Windows, and this is reflected in new data acquisition products. “Windows 98 and Windows NT now are the two operating systems that need to be supported,” said Mr. DeSantis. He also said that IOtech would continue to use Windows 98 even after Windows NT 5.0, which supports USB, debuts.

With such powerful PC technology on the horizon, data acquisition system developers are finding new applications for the higher speeds that soon will be available. Dr. Truchard indicated that National Instruments wants to eliminate the gap between what’s happening and what’s needed in measurement automation. He stated that a 10× speed improvement is possible, such as by using faster communications protocols like HS-488 instead of IEEE 488.2.

“We will use Ethernet and internet and are prepared to take advantage of the better data transfer rates offered by USB and IEEE 1394 (Firewire),” continued Dr. Truchard. He also indicated that National Instruments plans to leverage PC technologies such as Internet, ActiveX, Compact PCI, and PXI and software development tools like LabVIEW, TestStand™, and Interchangeable Virtual Instruments (IVI) drivers, to realize the throughput improvement.

How Will the Industry Grow?

Industry leaders point to several reasons for growth in 1999. One contributor is globalization. IOtech’s Mr. DeSantis noted that the worldwide market is more competitive than ever. “Not only are you competing with companies on your own turf, but also from around the world,” he said. “That leads to a desire for increased quality which drives the need for more testing and more data acquisition.”

New and expanding markets are creating follow-on business opportunities. Mr. Keithley listed the increased use of electronics in the automotive industry and the booming communications industry as reasons for the growing demand of data acquisition products.

“We must look at companies with money to spend on testing,” he said, “because the kinds of products being tested contribute to most of the growth.” Mr. Keithley also pointed to further market penetration in the semiconductor and network industries.

In addition to globalization and expanding markets, another way to grow is to address a generic need in the test industry. “We want to make customers successful by improving the performance of their test systems,” said National Instruments’ Dr. Truchard. He explained that the advanced technology of the PC offers increased throughput for measurement and instrumentation, and with the PC, customers can add automation, visualization, and data sharing. “In tough times, it makes sense to seek low-cost, PC-based solutions,” he concluded.

Specific Solutions

What problems are being addressed by the data acquisition industry, and how does this make your job easier? Mr. DeSantis indicated that 50% of the customers who use IOtech’s out-of-the-box solution never have to write a program. “We are providing data acquisition solutions that are easy to configure and expand and give you everything necessary to begin your application,” he said.

As an example of a specific industrial application, Mr. Keithley said that his company developed a miniature instrument for in-vehicle monitoring tests. Keithley increased the channel count and tailored the communications bus to suit the automaker. This in-vehicle monitoring system provides a measurement performance and cost-per-channel not previously realized.

In most industries, the test function, as a whole, needs to be decreased. According to Dr. Truchard of National Instruments, many production lines in the industry are followed by 10, 20, or 50 test stations. He said the only way to increase test throughput today is to add more stations. “National Instruments is working to increase test throughput by a factor of 10 by combining the best technologies, PCI, PXI, and IVI,” he concluded.

New Products

A wide range of new data acquisition products is available. Mr. Keithley indicated that his company has developed the ADwin plug-in boards for real-time measurement and control, the SmartDaq PCI cards, the KPCMCIA cards for portable applications, and the SmartLink sensors with built-in network interfaces.

IOtech has designed a product specifically for portable field applications. Mr. DeSantis highlighted the LogBook 300, saying that data acquisition can occur without the PC being there. You develop the application on the PC. Then, this software is stored on a small PC card and inserted into the unit. You don’t need a PC at every site. Also, it’s more rugged than a PC and eliminates the theft problem associated with PCs.

Dr. Truchard said National Instruments introduced the Flex ADC™, a variable resolution digitizer with a 160-dB dynamic range. It uses the PCI bus for 132 MB/s throughput. The company recently demonstrated the throughput capability by making a frequency response measurement in 200 µs, a measurement that previously took seconds with a conventional IEEE 488 bus.

Copyright 1998 Nelson Publishing Inc.

December 1998


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