System designers always look to the test and measurement industry for help. Validating and verifying their IC designs and end systems requires the most advanced tools. And, the T&M industry keeps responding with better hardware and software products. One trend rippling through the T&M arena is a greater emphasis on software to make measurements easier to use, faster, and more accurate. For instance, Agilent Technologies' Test Express standards-based automation test kit shortens setup and coding time. To some extent, the software trend has been influenced by
manufacturers of plug-in hardware and software products that use PC platforms for lower-cost T&M approaches, a concept spearheaded by National Instruments. T&M vendors now routinely supply their customers with helpful software packages, provide designers with online and on-location seminars, and make available CD-ROMs that create more efficient T&M routines.
Another key trend has T&M vendors teaming up with other vendors of specialty hardware and software packages to offer targeted instrument solutions for specific types of measurements. Picosecond Pulse Labs, a manufacturer of high-speed time-domian reflectometers (TDRs), has collaborated with TDA Systems, an advanced measurement software producer, to offer cost-effective high-resolution TDR measurements previously not possible.
Handheld T&M instrument companies continue to pack more functions into their devices, opening new doors in industrial, communications, automotive, and medical electronics. Many of these portable test instruments are measuring light properties, magnetic field strength, sound levels, bit-error rates, and even chemical attributes.
The new high-speed PCI Express will make an impact on measurements as well. Some T&M experts say this bus will replace the parallel PCI bus within two years, as Intel and IBM are developing IC chips to bring PCI Express to servers and desktop computers. This will challenge oscilloscope and logic analyzer manufacturers to come up with instruments and probes that ensure accurate and valid "eye diagram" measurements made on PCI Express. Tektronix recently introduced the optional RT-EYE serial-data compliance and analysis software package for the company's TDS/CSA7000 series of oscilloscopes and the P7350SMA differential probe. Agilent Technologies' E2941a Soft Touch mid-bus probe for the PCI Express bus is another example.
Equipment expressly designed for Bluetooth interoperability testing is making its way into the market as more Bluetooth applications emerge. Advantest America's R4870 is the first single instrument to perform both RF and Bluetooth interoperability tests in accordance with Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG) specifications. Last year, Agilent introduced a one-box platform for testing Bluetooth, as well as other emerging wireless technologies.
As more optical communications take shape, there's a growing cry for advanced T&M optical test equipment. Last year, Innocor showed off a test solution that offers forward error correction (FEC) for optical testing of 1-Gbit/s Ethernet networks based on the Optical Transport G.709 protocols. A first in the industry, the module supports the company's Tsunami shelf system, which provides a wealth of test configurations for network traffic loading, error injection, monitoring, and payload analysis. In addition, more precise optical TDR (OTDR) measurements are becoming crucial. NetTest's model 5269 50-mm OTDR module and Fiber Systems International's model 1300 optical-loss assembly tester are just two examples of leading-edge optical test equipment introduced last year.
One big challenge is developing an affordable and viable automatic-test-equipment (ATE) system as more dense silicon-on-chip devices get churned out. A potentially promising approach is an open, industry-wide standard for ATE, the Openstar standard proposed by the Semiconductor Test Consortium (STC). Openstar should make it easier for test-equipment vendors to innovate their hardware.
Advantest America gave the standard a boost with its T2000 ATE systems. But not everyone is convinced, as the standard doesn't address backplane and software issues, eliminating innovations in those areas. Last year, NPTest offered one answer to the test-cost problem with its 6.4-GHz Sapphire ATE system, which is based on the NPower open-architecture and XTOS (eXtendable Test Operating System) software. NPTest says the system halves IC testing costs. Agilent, with its $399,000 model 93000 DFT silicon-on-chip tester, says its system is the most cost-effective in the industry, bringing cost down to "a penny a second."
Logic analyzers and oscilloscopes have also kept up with design demands. These instruments offer wider bandwidths, greater amounts of memory, faster response times, and easier-to-use menus. The 86100C Infiniium digital oscilloscope now includes the digital communications analyzer with jitter (DCA-J) option. It accurately separates random and deterministic jitter and their subcomponents from 50 Mbits/s to 40 Gbits/s.
One area few T&M companies have paid attention to is T&M gear for nanoelectronics, projected to be a $1 trillion global industry in 10 to 15 years. Keithley Instruments has committed itself to developing instruments that accurately measure and characterize very low-level electrical and current signals associated with nanoscale devices and materials.