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R&D Relies More On Modular Instruments

June 16, 2011
They're flexible, scalable, and customizable: They're modular instruments, and they're not just for production test. Frost & Sullivan's Jessy Cavazos kicks off her High Marks column with a discussion of how modular instrumentation is making inroads wi

Modular instruments not only are making significant inroads into the design validation and verification space, they’re also being used up to the early stages of R&D. Their scalability and the increasing need for flexibility and customization of the test systems are some of the key reasons for this trend, which is expected to only strengthen in the future.


One of the key factors driving the adoption of modular instrumentation in R&D applications is their scalability. In fact, the ability to scale systems and leverage the investment that was made in R&D to bridge the gap between R&D and production throughout the product lifecycle is a prime driving factor for the overall modular instrumentation market.

A lot that goes on in R&D during the testing and development of prototypes can be migrated into the production part of the life cycle. Historically, there has always been a barrier between the R&D phase and production phase of the product life cycle. This barrier can be broken down with a modular environment that enables customers to scale up very easily starting with a small system and then continue to build up a bigger system by adding on modules as the channel count increases.

“The gap between R&D and production environments has narrowed as companies are looking to reuse as much engineering as possible across all stages of a product life cycle,” says Tom Sarfi, vice president of marketing and business development for VTI Instruments. “Our focus in new development is on modular platforms, emphasizing the creation of software and hardware architectures that easily scale from small to large channel counts.”

Flexibility And Customization

While scalability is among the top reasons for test engineers who choose modular instruments over traditional instruments, their need for greater flexibility and customization of the test systems to meet specific testing needs is also increasing. Moore’s Law has been and continues to change the way devices have to be tested. Many designers who choose to use modular instruments for design validation applications say it allows them to make measurements that would be difficult to integrate in a single box.

“The complexity of next-generation devices often makes it impractical to use traditional box instruments for characterization and validation. Using PXI, design engineers can create customized, automated solutions specifically tuned to their needs,” says Matthew Friedman, senior product manager for automated test at National Instruments. The flexibility and the ability to customize the test system are key reasons why customers choose a modular product over a traditional box solution, in addition to the need for greater granularity in terms of number of channels.


While the main focus in the manufacturing environment is to get a quality product out at a low cost per unit, the R&D market is essentially driven by time-to-market. With the downturn of 2008-2009, the focus on reducing time-to-market in the lab increased significantly, which translated into efforts in reducing test time. While the economy in North America and around the world improved in 2010, research indicates continued focus on reducing time-to-market going forward.

Development time remains a top challenge for researchers, which is likely to increase the adoption of modular instruments in R&D, as it can reduce test times dramatically. For example, Triquint Semiconductor reduced characterization of its power amplifiers from approximately two weeks to one day by switching to PXI (see the table).

Moving forward, reducing test time will become even more important than it is today, as products that need to be tested are becoming more software-defined, requiring the testing of more design variants than ever before.

Future Outlook

The scalability, flexibility, and customization benefits of modular instruments are expected to increase their adoption in R&D applications, as the complexity of devices increases further. “Modular instruments can be found anywhere measurements are automated, including R&D,” explains Larry Desjardin, general manager for Agilent’s Modular Product Operation.

“In fact, the AXIe modular standard is the basis for Agilent’s recent introductions, including the U4154A DDR logic analyzer, U4998A HDMI protocol analyzer, and the M8190A arbitrary waveform generator. These are deployed principally in R&D and take advantage of the scalability of AXIe, allowing customers to add channels or mix and match measurements,” Desjardin adds.

Devices that are naturally scalable or multi-channel lend themselves to a modular solution and a lot of devices are heading in that direction, whether it’s in the automotive industry or the wireless communications industry with technologies such as multiple-input multiple-output (MIMO). Moreover, the increasing complexity of devices under test (DUTs) is expected to increase the need for integrating test at the beginning of the design process.

In addition, as a result of more and more integration with DUTs, engineers increasingly need an automated test setup to validate their designs. Exhaustive testing is now required before moving onto the manufacturing stage. There is a lot of automated test in R&D and research indicates R&D will become increasingly automated in the future as well, which will drive the adoption of modular instrumentation in this space.

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