DesignCon keynote: Instrument evolution keeps pace with design

In Wednesday's keynote at DesignCon, Mike Santori, business and technology fellow at National Instruments, traced the evolution of instrumentation and described a complementary evolution in standard commercial off-the-shelf electronic products. In the '80's he said, NI offered GPIB boards to support test automation via personal computers. The '90s saw the introduction of LabVIEW and the concept of virtual instrumentation, where the computer becomes the test platform.

As instrumentation evolved, so too have COTS electronics, beginning in 1920 with the vacuum tube, which Santori called the first COTS electronic component. Progress continued through the transistor and integrated circuit, and the evolution continues today in accordance with Moore's Law, which drives not just CPU power but memory and graphics functions as well. Today, Santori said, we take computer power for granted. A cellphone has evolved from a simple communications device into a full-blown general-purpose computer—one that can even be used to make the occasional phone call.

In addition, Santori said, software is everywhere. A new car, he estimated, can have 3 to 4 million lines of embedded code. That makes test and measurement significantly more challenging, as engineers face the task of designing and testing multiprotocol devices that might support GSM, WLAN, and RFID technologies.

A modular approach is the best way to address today's test challenges, he said. Modular instruments with multicore processors and user-programmable FPGAs provide the necessary power and flexibility, with user-programmable instruments like the NI Vector Signal Transceiver opening the door to what he called “software-designed instrumentation.” He cited Qualcomm Atheros as an example of a company that has successfully applied such an approach. As protocols get more complex, Qualcomm Atheros has found it more challenging to characterize its transceivers, which might have hundreds of thousands of programmable-gain possibilities. The traditional approach has been to use gain table estimates, but FPGA-based instruments permit quick, direct measurement of 300,000 gain settings—data transfer and handshaking over a GPIB interface are eliminated, and no estimates are necessary. In general, Santori said, PXI instruments offer a 10X speed improvement over GPIB, and FPGA-based PXI instruments offer a 200X improvement over GPIB.

Santori cited Dynapower as another company that has successfully applied a modular approach. Dynapower used the NI LabVIEW power electronics design platform and the FPGA-based NI General Purpose Inverter Controller (GPIC) to reduce development time on power-converter designs from 72 weeks to 24 weeks.

Santori noted that test system architectures are not dissimilar from embedded system design architectures, and he presented a picture showing system-level design and test occurring in parallel, with component-level design and test also occurring in parallel, with shared and reusable IP leading to full system implementation.

Today's design challenges require innovative thinking, Santori said, with software-designed instruments changing the rules. “Think beyond your current tools and approaches,” he concluded.

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