Instrumentation is undergoing a revolution. The convergence of instrumentation and the PC has fundamentally changed the way engineers take measurements. Modular, computer-based measurement and automation systems that can leverage breakthrough PC, software, and Internet technologies are must-haves to meet ever-increasing test demands. Now, another enabling technology, analog-to-digital converters (ADCs), is driving the rapid advancement of computer-based measurement.
Traditionally, ADC technology was greatly driven by the needs of the instrumentation market. ADCs have become a critical technology for the rapidly growing telecommunications and consumer electronics industry. The demand for high-bandwidth data converters for wireless devices, DVD players, HDTVs, and other high-volume technologies has refueled ADC advancements. Commercially available off-the-shelf ADCs now regularly outperform the proprietary conversion methods common in traditional, standalone instruments.
Computer-based instrumentation uniquely exploits this new ADC technology. Traditionally, most standalone instrument makers vested their R&D efforts into custom ADC technology for individual pieces of equipment offering fixed, unique measurements. But, computer-based digitizers have advanced much more rapidly than their customized, standalone counterparts.
While telecommunications innovations continue to push off-the-shelf ADCs, computer-based test and measurement markets feed off those advancements, expanding their capabilities and increasing performance. Therefore, computer-based instruments are heading to frequency and resolution levels in excess of what standalone equipment can obtain, and in some cases, have outperformed traditional equipment.
The inherently modular architecture of computer-based instrumentation is the key to harnessing ADC technology. The fundamental components of any instrument can be generalized as acquisition, analysis or signal processing, and presentation or reporting. In traditional instruments, the vendor defines these functions. With computer-based instruments, these functions are flexible modules that leverage modern software and high-performance hardware.
Modularity gives instruments scalability across many types of measurements—the versatility and flexibility to make virtually any measurement that falls within an instrument's core capabilities. Unlike standalone equipment, computer-based instruments aren't dedicated to certain types of measurements with expensive, custom hardware and software.
Computer-based instruments that embrace ADCs offer versatility, which in the long run reduces time-to-market, saves money, and allows test engineers to use one instrument for the various measurements they currently face. By the flexible resolution that ADCs provide, 21-bit resolution at 10 ksamples/s, 19 bits at 100 ksamples/s, and 14 bits at 1 Msample/s can all be acquired with a single computer-based digitizer.
Taking innovations from the computer and electronics industry and applying them to measurement and automation drives our approach to computer-based instrumentation. With the advancements in the PC, Internet, and ADC technologies, engineers can create innovative test and measurement systems. Through the increased frequency and higher-quality resolution of computer-based instruments, the performance gap between these systems and traditional standalone instrumentation is closing.