Nighthawk tackles cost of RF test

Norwood, MA. Semiconductor vendors, foundries, and test houses face increasing pressure to cut test costs, and ATE companies have worked to reduce test costs through a variety of strategies, including massively parallel multisite test.

But when it comes to RF test, massively parallel test on traditional ATE systems can result in underutilization of capital investment, according to LTX-Credence officials Bruce MacDonald, CTO; Lenny Leon, business development specialist and chief RF technologist; and John DeGiorgio, director of new business development. The problem is particularly acute, they said, for single-radio devices—such as microcontrollers incorporating an RF communications link.

LTX-Credence is embarking on a new strategy to test such devices with its new Nighthawk brand. The first product under that brand is the NighthawkCT test system—introduced today—which can add quad-site RF test capability to any of the company's Diamond or X-Series testers.

The CT in NighthawkCT, said DeGiorgio, stands for “connectivity test” and refers to single-radio devices that support Zigbee, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS, and DVB devices as well as devices supporting proprietary RF implementations. Applications, he said, range from satellite receivers to key fobs and garage-door openers. NighthawkCT, he said, is not optimized for multiradio cellular devices, for which the company offers the larger Dragon RF platform for the Diamond. Similarly, NighthawkCT is not optimized for the test of front-end components like power amplifiers, for which the company offers other test solutions.

But for connectivity devices, DeGiorgio said, NighthawkCT can offer significant cost savings. The cost of a traditional test system for RF test, he said, begins at about $400k for infrastructure. Adding high-performance instruments brings the price tag to $600k, and the addition of RF capability yields a final price in the $900k range. For a complete Diamond equipped with NighthawkCT, he said, the first number in the price tag is 3, not 9. And that's the total price—not the upgrade price—he emphasized.

Nevertheless, the upgrade business is one that the company is looking to take advantage of. MacDonald noted that there is an installed base of about 750 Diamond systems, and in many cases the Diamond, or X-Series, customers never envisioned needing to test RF devices. But as microcontrollers increasingly take on RF functionality, these customers are finding the need to add RF test capability. DeGiorgio said upgrading an existing Diamond with laptop-sized NighthawkCT takes about 30 minutes—no drilling is required. A single NighthawkCT supports quad-site test; an additional system can be added for eight-site test.

NighthawkCT is a self-contained RF test system that supports direct-baseband source/measurement functions as well as carrier-based measurements.

Leon attributed the NighthawkCT system's performance to improvements in FPGA and RF technology. The DSP capabilities of today's FPGAs, he said, enable the rapid performance of operations such as decimation. And as for RF performance, he said LTX-Credence is the beneficiary of its RF customers. For example, the data converters used in the NighthawkCT were designed for cellular infrastructure applications. The air-cooled system employs all CMOS components, he said. There are no GaAs devices.

Features include carrier detect synchronization (CDS), which compensates for the indeterminance in DUT sequencing that occurs, for instance, after a microcontroller's command to send a data packet. “With CDS,” DeGiorgio said, “You don't process useless data. You only process the payload.”

NighthawkCT operates from 80 MHz to 6 GHz and features a 200-MHz IF bandwidth to support the test of 802.11ac devices. The tester also features a one-year calibration cycle—the NighthawkCT can be swapped out and returned to the factory for calibration.

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