Significant R&D Investments Will Drive Innovative T&M Technologies

Dec. 28, 2010
Increased dynamic range and frequency bandwidth are in the offing for test equipment in 2011, says Frost and Sullivan's Jessy Cavazos. Users should also get used to touchscreen interfaces on their instruments.

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LTE applications

While recent years have challenged test vendors as they strived to preserve their innovation capabilities while reducing their operating expenses, the more positive market performance of 2010 and the even brighter outlook for 2011 provide fertile grounds for highly innovative new product introductions in test and measurement. Instrumentation companies are more committed to R&D than ever, and electronic design engineers are in for a treat.

Dynamic Range And Frequency Bandwidth
“Megatrends such as wireless connectivity and data bandwidth have led to increased requirements for wider frequency bandwidth and dynamic range of test instruments. Increasingly, researchers and developers are working at higher frequencies with more activity in the millimeter-wave and lower terahertz regions,” says Bob Buxton, marketing manager of the General Purpose Business Unit at Anritsu.  

In 2011 and beyond, expect new product introductions to cover those higher frequencies. Leading test vendors such as Tektronix and Agilent Technologies will continue to invest heavily in ASIC technology for their next generation of products. In fact, Agilent is investing millions of dollars in custom ASICs to create high-performing data converters that deliver performance not available from the commercial market.

On its end, Tektronix has announced significant investments in next-generation silicon-germanium (SiGe) ASIC chipsets for its next generation of oscilloscopes. Its investment in IBM 8HP SiGe technology will be reflected in the company’s product families of 2011-2013, translating into real-time bandwidth beyond 30 GHz for its oscilloscopes.

Anritsu also is investing heavily in R&D, particularly in microwave technology. Its VectorStar vector network analyzer (VNA) leverages its internally developed nonlinear transmission technology, enabling a frequency span from 70 kHz to 110 GHz from a single coaxial test port in the broadband configuration, while also enabling a better dynamic range at higher frequencies.

In the wireless market more specifically, the advance of new standards will drive product introductions. Test vendors are expected to tackle new broadband technologies such as LTE (Long-Term Evolution) Advanced (see the figure) with new test solutions.

“These technologies are pushing the performance barriers in terms of bandwidth and data rate (LTE’s bandwidth is moving up to 100 MHz), which places particular demands on instrumentation, emphasizing the need for low noise and increasing our focus on signal processing,” says Bill Burrows, business development manager for Aeroflex.

Increased processing capabilities are crucial not only in the wireless industry but also in the overall electronic test equipment industry in the context of a world with an increasing amount of data to process and the need to synthesize this raw data into answers quickly so decisions can be made. Tektronix calls this megatrend “faster time to answer.”

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“As our customers design ever faster data links, we’re providing application-based tools and a suite of instruments to facilitate measurement debug and verification. The combined capability of our performance acquisition/generation products and sophisticated analysis suite really help them get to the answer faster,” says Kevin Ilcisin, chief technology officer for Tektronix.  

More Modular Products Introductions
September’s Autotestcon 2010 in Orlando, Fla., marked Agilent’s renewed commitment in test and measurement equipment to modular instrumentation with the introduction of more than 40 modular products. This is the result of a trend toward more complex integrated test solutions.

These test solutions can be built up from small form factors, PXI being a typical example. Engineers need to build more complex test solutions, and that can best be done out of modular instrumentation as opposed to traditional instruments. With modular products, engineers can integrate products and build their own solutions for their specific requirements.

“As testing has become more complex, we’ve seen the market move away from standalone, traditional instrumentation. PXI has become the proven standard for providing the additional flexibility and customization users are looking for,” says Matthew Friedman, senior product manager for automated test at National Instruments.

Further, megatrends such as zero-footprint systems are leading to increased interest in small form factors. Instrumentation vendors are expected to make instrumentation smaller and lower-power going forward.

Totally Touchscreen
While touchscreen technology has been provided on test equipment in combination with buttons and knobs for some time now, devices such as Apple’s iPhones and iPads have led to an increasing number of engineers, both young and experienced, getting very familiar with touchscreen technology. In the future, you can expect instrumentation to become increasingly touchscreen to the point of being completely touchscreen.

Aeroflex introduced its totally touchscreen signal generators, the S-Series, in November 2010. With the exception of the on/off button, these units have no push buttons or rotary controls. While this enhances ease of use, it is also an advantage for the test vendor in terms of product upgrades. For example, the vendor doesn’t have to put multiple functions on push buttons to accommodate new features.

Product introductions for the next few years will be connected but certainly not limited to these trends. While the increase in frequency bandwidth is crucial in the research and development environment, the key trend in the manufacturing test space is the move from traditional instruments to modular instrumentation, and more specifically platforms offering smaller form factors. Also, the availability of completely touchscreen instrumentation, be it for the field or the lab, is expected to increase.

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