Electronic Test Moves Labs Forward
Today, users of electronic test instrumentation strive to get their products to market quickly as design and development cycles are becoming shorter. They require consistency in their test strategy, yet flexibility in form factor. Current electronic test instrumentation vendors demonstrate this by offering a diversity of test products that leverage common test functionalities. Options are now offered from traditional box instruments, to handheld/portable instruments, to modular instruments. Yet, this equipment needs to handle higher-speed protocols, faster sample rates and more resolution.
While traditionally electronic test instruments have been “big box” products with bulky displays, controls and custom user interfaces, a new trend towards portable and PC-based platforms is accelerating. With the trend towards virtual instruments, the hardware is more generic and the instrument itself is modular and/or software configurable to a specific application task. As space is valuable to any laboratory, instrumentation like PC-based oscilloscopes take up less space on the bench and can be operated remotely when in the field, providing the rapid results users need and the space technicians want.
Increased integration of multiple instruments into one product has become a major trend in electronic test instrumentation. While power supplies and digital multimeters were once the go-to instruments for general-purpose T&M, equipment like source measure units (SMUs) are more commonly used for these applications. While functions such as switching and measurement were once separate, they are now integrated in one instrument. Keithley Instruments’ Model 2450 touchscreen SMU is one example.
Over the past three years, test instrumentation has undergone many of the changes that drive the larger electronics industry. Users expect more functionality at less cost with the highest performance possible in their product development. Today’s test instruments offer more bandwidth, are more accurate and provide higher resolution than those of the past, this is especially true of 12-bit oscilloscopes.
“High-resolution oscilloscopes have been around for 20 years. Despite the advantages, many users have been deterred by price,” says Alan Tong, Pico Technology, Cambridgeshire, U.K. The last three years have seen an expansion in oscilloscope buffer memory. While earlier scopes featured memories as small as 2,500 samples, most current oscilloscopes offer several million samples, some even offer up to 2 billion samples.
Modern instruments offer more built-in automation capability for compliance testing; and in some instances there is a trend toward higher dynamic range. The biggest overall improvement of test instrumentation according to vendors has been the addition of new communication interfaces, like USB, PXI and LXI, to the standard GPIB. This adds significant system integration flexibility and makes it easier to export data to an Excel spreadsheet for analysis.
Many now offer wireless connectivity. “Wireless test instruments have wider IF and RF bandwidths to accommodate similar trends in communication bandwidths. More complex measurements need to be made faster with smaller instruments. So instruments have higher density FPGAs, and faster processors and DSPs,” says Anritsu, Kanagawa, Japan.
As wireless communication, computer and network technologies continue to push information bandwidth, higher bandwidth and more advanced electronic test solutions are required. “At the same time, the push to higher measurement frequencies puts a higher degree of emphasis on uncompromising measurement science and calibrations,” says Bob Witte, VP of Technology Leadership, Agilent Technologies Inc., Englewood, Colo. The measurements must be at higher frequencies, with higher throughput, handling more complex modulation formats, all while maintaining the accuracy of the result.
One of the main challenges vendors face in product development of electronic test equipment is that they are selling more to a generation that has grown up on smartphones and iPads. There are new expectations about ease of use that must be taken into account. The Oscium (Oklahoma City, Okla.) brand has made a significant impact in ease of use and portability of electronic test equipment as seen by its 2012 R&D 100 Award-winning iMSO-104 technology.
Geographically, the biggest growth in the electronic test instrumentation market has, and will, occur in Asia, mostly China.
But how efficient, cost-effective and easy to use is the current electronic test equipment on the market? R&D Magazine surveyed its readers to discover the types they commonly use, whether they are satisfied with the current technology and what features of function can be improved. Do these instruments make the grade?,/p>
What electronic test equipment do respondents typically use? Topping the list were multimeters (77%), voltmeters (73%), data acquisition (72%) and oscilloscopes (51%). About 34% of the respondents note use of their electronic test equipment for general use. Applications in electronic circuit testing (27%), communications (17%) and biotechnology (17%) followed. However, typical electronic test equipment can be used in other applications like aerospace, automotive, computer testing, energy generation, mechanical systems, medical devices, physical systems and semiconductors.
Of our respondents, the majority (25%) use Agilent Technologies’ electronic test instrumentation, followed closely by Tektronix (24%) and National Instruments (19%). Other smaller companies were also represented such as Keithley Instruments, LeCroy, Oscium, Rigol, Pico Technology, Teradyne, Yokogawa and Fluke. Over the past three years, 54% of the respondents noted no change to use of electronic test equipment in their laboratories, while 36% saw an increase of use. Only 10% cited a decrease, mainly for issues related to cost and staff cutbacks.
What are the important trends respondents have seen in this equipment in the past three years? The top answer is better software options (51%). Other trends that users found important are higher processing power (43%), a decrease in cost (38%), Wi-Fi/wireless connection (37%) and advanced analysis (37%). Some respondents also noted speed and efficiency increases (35%) and increased sampling rate (34%). As newer systems begin to cost less, they are also beginning to include convenient features such as touchscreen controls, in part due to higher internal processing power. Advances in hardware and software have brought on cost reduction and have increased throughput of these instruments. This new equipment is cited as better by respondents, and can do more, faster, to resolve electronic problems.
With the improvements noted, what do respondents want to see improve in the next three years? While cost has already decreased, 73% of respondents still want to see cost reductions in the technology. More and better software options continue to be on the wish list of 40% of the respondents, while more wireless connection is wanted by 32%. These statistics show the rapid changes in the electronics industry that the equipment must keep pace with, along with the shorter design and development cycles users face. This also reflects the trend of younger electrical engineers entering companies and laboratories after college who are better at operating consumer electronics such as iPhones with touchscreen displays.
Where do our readers see the most growth in electronic test instrumentation in the next three years? Many users stated their requests for multi-functional instruments with better and faster interfaces and better software integration. They want an all-in-one instrument that is capable of multiple functions. A reduction in size, according to respondents, would also be an added bonus. Remote operation, according to some respondents, was also of importance.
Other respondents are looking forward to instrument releases with user-configurable FPGA options for data processing and reduction right at the source. Others see the most growth in software for the embedded controllers that drive these systems, while others note embedded wireless connection in ICP sensors that is capable of transmitting continuous analog sensor output.