Elevating the test function

Organizations are elevating test engineering and identifying it as a strategic asset that can help organizations gain a competitive edge over the competition. That's one of five trends that National Instruments has identified in its recently released 2012 Automated Test Outlook.

In an effort to optimize test organizations, NI reports, companies are leveraging popular business improvement strategies such as six sigma, lean manufacturing, capability maturity model integration (CMMI), and agile product development.

NI notes that test, like IT, has traditionally been viewed as a support function and a necessary cost center. But just as IT can streamline operations and help managers make real-time decisions, test has been found to be critical to validate a product's performance, reduce development time, increase quality, and lower return rates.

As a specific example, the 2012 Automated Test Outlook cites a Research Triangle Institute study for NIST in 2002 (“The Economic Impacts of Inadequate Infrastructure for Software Testing,” NIST Planning Report 02-3) that estimated the impact of inadequate software test on the U.S. automotive and aerospace industries was $1.47 billion. NI cites an additional study conducted by researchers at the NASA that puts the cost of finding a product defect during production at 21 to 78 times what the cost would be if the defect were found in design.

“By catching defects earlier in product development and collecting the data to improve a design or process, test delivers tremendous value to the organization,” the NI report states. The NI report cautions, however, that it can take three to five years for companies to realize the benefits of transforming test into a strategic asset, moving from ad hoc through reactive and proactive and ultimately optimized test organization maturity levels.

Measurements and Simulation

Other trends that the NI report identifies center on measurements and simulation in the design flow, PCI Express external interfaces, the proliferation of mobile devices, and portable measurement algorithms.

With respect to measurements and simulation in the design flow, NI notes that engineers must increasingly understand the role of software in both the design and test phases of product development. The company identifies an emerging feature in today's EDA software tools is the ability to provide increasing levels of connectivity between the EDA environment and test software, thereby enabling EDA tools to drive measurement software and to enable the measurement automation environment to automate the EDA environment, with a key benefit being the opportunity to correlate simulation results with measured data from the validation and verification process. Going forward, NI concludes, integrated design and test practices will help drive design excellence.

PCI Express

In an additional trend, NI says the PCI Express bus will likely become the interface of choice for automated test systems. A pervasive technology that's part of every PC, PCI Express offers high data bandwidth and low latency and has started to blur the boundaries between a system bus, used for interfacing local devices within a system, and an interface bus, used for interfacing external peripheral devices to the system, NI reports.

Mobile Devices

With respect to mobile devices, the NI report notes that tablets and smart phones can't replace PC-based measurement platforms like PXI but, with appropriate apps, they can serve as extensions to a test system. The NI report says such devices will increasingly be used for test-system monitoring and control as well as test-data and report viewing, with web services facilitating data exchange between data and clients.

Portable Measurement Algorithms

The final trend identified in the Automated Test Outlook 2012 report relates to portable measurement algorithms, in which new tools are making it possible for measurement IP to be developed once and then deployed to a wide array of disparate processing elements. Over the past 20 years, NI reports, user-programmable microprocessor-based measurement algorithms have allowed engineers to adapt the concept of virtual instrumentation to adapt to custom and rapidly changing test requirements. The next phase will be the use of open, or end-user-programmable, FPGAs that will enable low-latency measurements and facilitate real-time test hardware sequencing and DUT control.

For More Information

The 2012 Automated Test Outlook is based on input from academic and industry research, user forums and surveys, business intelligence, and customer advisory-board reviews. To obtain the complete report visit www.ni.com/ato.

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