Electronic Design
Keep Your Test Systems In Shape

Keep Your Test Systems In Shape



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Spring is always a good reminder to review our New Year’s resolutions, and keeping our bodies in shape is often near the top of the list. But what about keeping our test systems in shape? Some engineers and managers have resolved to improve their test systems this year, and I tip my hat to those who have. Perhaps the rest of us should follow their lead into the test system “gym” to ensure we’re keeping our test systems in shape as well.

So what does it mean to keep your test system in shape? For some it means going back and cleaning up some code or perhaps finally getting around to documenting how to properly operate and maintain the system. For others it may imply investigating an entirely new test system design or standardization to ensure more commonality and reuse moving forward. Others may be considering how to keep up with the insertion of new test technologies to benefit from Moore’s Law. Wherever you find yourself in this spectrum, there is typically something all of us can do to get our test systems in shape.

Many organizations focus on three specific areas to improve the shape of their test systems: staying abreast of key trends in test that afford significant technical and business impact, prototyping next-generation test requirements with new technology innovations, and implementing life-cycle management strategies to ensure their test systems can effectively and efficiently stand the test of time.

Today’s Trends

For many engineers and managers, keeping up with the latest trends in test across the industry is difficult because you’re often limited to viewing the trends that are occurring within your own organization. Thus, it can be difficult to state with confidence that you’re ensuring the competitive advantage of your test systems relative to the rest of the industry.

National Instruments has performed the research and taken on the task of helping you stay on top of the latest automated test trends through the Automated Test Outlook. This business- and technology-focused outlook gives you the essential information and insight you need to stay on top of the latest cross-industry trends related to business strategy, architectures, computing, software, and I/O shaping the future of automated test systems.

The 2011 Automated Test Outlook is available for free download and covers organizational test integration, system software stack, heterogeneous computing, and intellectual property (IP) to the pin. The 2010 Automated Test Outlook is also available for perspective on last year’s trends.

Prototyping Innovations

The next area that organizations are investigating to keep their test systems in shape is prototyping next-generation test capabilities with some of the latest technologies and methodologies mentioned above. PXI modular instrumentation, FPGA-based reconfigurable instrumentation, auto-schedule parallel testing, and multicore processing architectures are among the key technologies that organizations are actively piloting today.

The open, industry-defined PXI standard is making a significant impact on the performance, affordability, and size of automated test systems across many applications, from chip test to consumer device test to the latest medical device tests. PXI can also be added to existing systems using GPIB, USB, VXI, and Ethernet interfaces for a hybrid system approach.

In many cases, organizations using a modular PXI-based test system are seeing up to a 10 times or more increase in test throughput, greatly improved flexibility from using a software-defined instrumentation architecture, and significantly lower test system costs and size requirements.

A great example of the performance improvement that can be achieved can be seen in a recent Engineering TV video of a new PXI RF vector signal analyzer (VSA) compared to a traditional RF box instrument (see “Demonstration of National Instruments’ PXIe-5665 Vector Signal Analyzer”).

FPGA-based reconfigurable instrumentation is another game-changing technology that many organizations are piloting for use in their next-generation test systems. It can create measurement, processing, and analysis routines defined by the user that can be downloaded onto a powerful FPGA.

The NI LabVIEW FPGA Module makes it possible for engineers without knowledge of low-level hardware description languages to program advanced algorithms in its intuitive graphical environment. The software then automatically compiles the algorithms down to the Xilinx target on reconfigurable I/O devices such as the PXI-based NI FlexRIO.

The Cycle Of Life

The last focus area for getting test systems in shape is a proper life-cycle management strategy. Life-cycle management is an important technical and business topic for automated test, especially as it applies to fast-changing industries such as consumer electronics and long-life applications such as aerospace and defense.

For fast-changing industries, you must understand how your test system can outlive the devices it is testing and keep up with the future requirements of devices that have not yet been developed. The strategy for long-life applications relates to how you can ensure your test systems can last 10, 20, or 30 years or more with minimal cost and engineering effort.

In both cases, without a solid life-cycle management strategy you can easily find yourself in a technical debt situation in which you’re either unable to meet future test requirements or face mounting obsolescence issues. The figure highlights some recommended life-cycle management techniques you can apply in proactive and reactive strategies.

What You Can Do

Keeping your test systems in shape requires a similar commitment to keeping yourself in good shape. Many industry-leading companies keep their test strategy and systems in shape by modifying their new product introduction (NPI) processes and annual budgets to ensure they’re allowing for the purchase of new products and technologies with next-generation capabilities. They also ensure the proper personnel resources are allocated to investigating new technologies and how they could be integrated into their test systems.

Regardless of the current shape of your test system, we are all on the same technology “treadmill” and must keep our test systems in shape to avoid putting our organizations at risk of falling behind.

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