Smart Devices Require Smarter Automated Test Systems

Publish Date: Sep 14, 2016 | 11 Ratings | 4.09 out of 5 | Print

Overview

Smart devices are creating an inflection point in automated test for both the test managers and engineers challenged with ensuring the quality of these devices at increasingly lower costs, and the vendors that serve them. To test their smart devices, organizations are transitioning from the status quo of rack-and-stack box instruments and closed-architecture automated test equipment (ATE) systems to smarter test systems that scale with escalating requirements to continually shorten time to market and drive down cost.

Table of Contents

  1. Smart Devices
  2. Outsmarting Your Smart Device-Under-Test (DUT)
  3. A Platform Built for Customization
  4. An Ecosystem Built on the Platform
  5. STS: Disrupting the Status Quo in Semiconductor Test
  6. WTS: Disrupting the Status Quo in Wireless Test
  7. Summary
  8. Learn More



1. Smart Devices

For many of us, the Internet of Things (IoT) has already become a personal reality. When we control our Nest thermostat from a smartphone, measure the number of steps we’ve taken with a wristband, or stream video to a tablet, we enjoy the benefits of a device that can sense, connect, and compute. However, even for early technology adopters, the IoT is still in its infancy. Gartner estimates there will soon be more connected devices than humans, and by 2022 each household could contain more than 500 connected devices.

 

That’s a scary thought if you think about the pace of innovation. Can you rely on instrument or ATE vendors to innovate that fast?
Although we enjoy the benefits of the IoT as consumers, as engineers the sheer scale of the IoT can be overwhelming. From testing the smallest integrated circuit (IC) to the fully assembled wireless device, the IoT is causing a paradigm shift in the test and measurement industry. In semiconductor, the push for smaller and more integrated sensor technology is driving new, lower cost approaches to mixed-signal test. In consumer electronics, maintaining test coverage in spite of increasing wireless complexity is driving innovative test approaches such as parallel test. These systems not only need to improve upon your status quo of rack-and-stack box instruments or turnkey ATE systems but also need connectivity and problem solving capability that meets or exceeds the device under test (DUT). That’s a scary thought if you think about the pace of innovation. Can you rely on instrument or ATE vendors to innovate that fast?

 

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2. Outsmarting Your Smart Device-Under-Test (DUT)

What makes a test system smart? It takes flexible and software-defined I/O modules to sense the right connectivity for synchronization and data streaming (whether locally or to the cloud), and computational horsepower for signal processing where it can have the most benefit.  

 

NI’s approach to automated test empowers smarter test systems. With a platform built from the ground up for customization—either through the latest commercial technology or through your domain knowledge—you become part of a living, breathing, and evolving ecosystem that’s already responsible for creating innovative approaches to automated test across every industry. No other technology company in test and measurement spends more on R&D to upgrade the intelligence of your test system. No other vendor has the track record of growth and commitment to collaborating with our customers. And we’re only getting started.
Read on to learn how you can build smarter test systems to tackle smart devices with help from an open platform combined with a vibrant ecosystem.

 

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3. A Platform Built for Customization

All technology vendors talk about platforms. With large engineering teams, a sense of hierarchy and modularity is crucial for efficient development. To forgo a platform-based approach is to doom yourself to re-engineering, often from the ground up, whenever your system reaches a breaking point. In past eras, you may have been able to prolong the inevitable for years or even decades, but the pace of smart device innovation is making the unexpected routine.

 

So all test and measurement vendors use platforms of one form or another to deliver their product capability to users. But that doesn’t make all platforms equal. Some are purely for the purpose of internal design efficiency. If an oscilloscope vendor can use the same computing circuit daughterboard on every scope, they are using a common platform for one part of the design while the sample rate, bandwidth, or screen size of their scope evolve. The customer doesn’t see or interact with the computing “platform,” but it helps the vendor release new scopes faster, and there’s value in that.

 

Figure 1. A smarter technology platform provides designers and developers with a higher starting point 
by reusing core functional elements and commercial-off-the-shelf technology.

 

It’s not good enough for a vendor to use a platform. They have to architect and invest in that platform for the customer to use it with ultimate flexibility. Not everything needs to be 100 percent open source—that can create different management challenges—but it must have the ability to evolve faster than the vendor can manage it.

At NI, we take a radically different approach to platforms. We create them to help make our users more productive—sometimes even at the cost of our own efficiency. We expose APIs for our software and common mechanical/electrical interfaces for our hardware so pieces can be interconnected in whatever combination works best for the user. To follow the computing “platform” analogy for a scope, we give you the ability to specify what type of computing power you need for your scope and upgrade it over time, if needed, to keep pace with your processing requirements. While other vendors make you buy a whole new scope, NI gives you the ability to optimize the modular pieces of your instrumentation.

 

More and more capability of hardware is being moved to the software domain. To keep pace with the innovation of your smart device, you need extreme flexibility in the software or your instrumentation and test system. Take, for example, new digital predistortion techniques in RF amplifier technology. To effectively model and test those algorithms, your instrumentation needs to be open and modifiable through easy-to-understand software. The intellectual property that makes the instrument successfully test a power amplifier may have nothing to do with the instrument—but it clearly needs to work optimally with the instrument. A platform-based approach built for customization makes that not only possible but also easily done with the right domain expertise on the smart device.

 

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4. An Ecosystem Built on the Platform

Once you accept that a user-customizable platform is necessary to keep pace with smart devices, you might then start to worry about your own ability to customize it. By contrast, box instruments have been providing, for decades, push-button answers to common measurements and firmware-based algorithms that offered confidence in the validity and traceability of the measurement. How can that same level of confidence and trust be imparted from something you customized? In summary: an ecosystem of customization IP.

 

The same could be said about the iPhone. The promise of the App Store isn’t very appealing if you have to write all the apps yourself. But when a truly open platform is created, along with the clearly defined APIs and hardware specifications, an ecosystem often develops. That’s what created the iPhone into the multibillion app download machine it’s become, and it’s what makes NI automated test capability the most trusted approach for lowering the cost of test.

 

Figure 2. The capability of the NI ecosystem more than makes up for any of the risk assumed with
handling the intricacies of test system development on an open platform.

 

The NI ecosystem is made up of many parts:

  • User Community—There are hundreds of thousands of active users of NI software, composed of LabVIEW, TestStand, and LabWindows™/CVI. That doesn’t include the number of developers working with NI hardware drivers. In many ways, they are facing the same challenges with smart devices as you are, and they actively share their experiences in our online and in-person user communities. If you work at a large multinational organization, there’s a good chance a LabVIEW user group already exists at your company. If you represent the entire test department at your small business, you can benefit from online help coming from thousands of active peers. Many times, these colleagues create algorithms or example code that’s community vetted and available through the LabVIEW Tools Network. The community accomplishes an order of magnitude more (and faster) than our, your, or any other test vendor’s R&D ever could.
  • Partners and Integrators—When your resources are tight or domain expertise is limited, you may need to bring in expert help. Whether it’s simple consultation or turnkey system delivery and support, the NI Alliance Partner Network has more than 1,000 partners around the world to assist. Many have deep expertise in similar automated test scenarios, and they understand from experience how to architect a smarter automated test system that can evolve over time.
  • NI Support—When you need consultation with NI, our global team of more than 700 applications and systems engineers is available. With expertise in NI tools and a strong commitment to responsiveness and customer success, the NI support team can be reached by phone, email, or in-person to help you build or improve you test and measurement system to keep pace with changing requirements.
  • NI Field Engineers –NI has a world-class website for information-collection and ordering test equipment. But we haven’t lost the personal connection and insight that comes from having a local field sales engineer and inside sales engineer consult with you on your purchase. You get answers and advice from engineers that have used the products, understand the catalog, and can even offer roadmap and lifecycle information in the right circumstances.
  • Third-Party Hardware and Software—After the open platform descriptions are public (through APIs and supported hardware interfaces), a third-party product ecosystem can flourish. This has been true for almost 20 years with PXI, a multivendor consortium governed by the PXI Systems Alliance. The breadth of third-party software available through the LabVIEW Tools Network is also substantial, with more than three million downloads to date. In addition to finding specific IP useful to your application, the network is an opportunity for you to share and monetize the investment you’ve made in the NI ecosystem.
  • NI Hardware Services—NI provides hardware services that help you achieve lowest total cost of ownership over the life of your system. NI hardware services include repair, replacement, and regional sparing, system configuration and assembly, and multiple levels of return-to-NI or on-site calibration. After shipping more than 150,000 PXI systems, the concept of calibrating and servicing modular instruments is a core competency that NI or other certified providers can perform.

 

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5. STS: Disrupting the Status Quo in Semiconductor Test

In 2014, we introduced a smarter, production-ready system for RF and mixed-signal characterization and production test called the Semiconductor Test System (STS). With the open, modular architecture of the STS, you can access cutting-edge PXI instrumentation, unlike traditional ATE with its closed architecture. This is particularly important for RF and mixed-signal test, as the requirements of the latest semiconductor technologies often outpace the test coverage that traditional ATE provides.

 

Figure 3. The NI Semiconductor Test System (STS)

 

Powered by the TestStand Semiconductor Module, a specialized version of the industry-standard TestStand test management and data analysis software, and LabVIEW system design software, the STS comes with a rich set of features for semiconductor production environments, including a customizable operator interface, handler/prober integration, device-centric programming with pin-channel mapping, standard test data format reporting, and integrated multisite support. With these features, you can quickly develop, debug, and deploy test programs, which shortens overall time to market. Additionally, with the fully enclosed “zero-footprint” test head, integration with Optimal+ real-time big data analytics solutions, and standard interfacing and docking mechanics from Reid Ashman and others, the STS comes ready to integrate into a semiconductor production test cell.

 

Cirrus Logic selected the STS for high-volume production test of its Audio-CODEC products powering IoT devices. During a benchmark compare of test systems, the STS beat out closed, purpose-built ATE in every aspect: speed, test coverage, and price. Based on the results, Cirrus Logic is looking to test additional products with the STS. “[The] STS was ~30 percent faster. Additionally it met all the other operational requirements we had, including cost. In the end, what we concluded was that Cirrus purchasing [the] STS was cheaper than renting traditional ATE,” said John Cooke, product and engineering test manager at Cirrus Logic.

 

“Traditional ATE systems require major costly retooling efforts on the test floor as generations of test systems become obsolete or unable to meet new test requirements, but the nature of the open PXI architecture of the STS helps us retain our original investment and build upon it, rather than throw it away. It provides the flexibility we need to reconfigure and grow our test platforms in parallel with our growing performance needs."
   —Glen E. Peer, Integrated Device Technology Inc. 

» Read the Case Study

 

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6. WTS: Disrupting the Status Quo in Wireless Test

After validating the functionality of a semiconductor chip, the next step in the automated test value chain is board- and device-level test of consumer devices. Just as we added a rugged enclosure, connectivity, and application-specific software to PXI to create the STS, we did the same for wireless device test with the Wireless Test System (WTS) introduced in 2015. The WTS combines the latest advances in PXI, LabVIEW, and TestStand to offer a single system for multistandard, multiport, and multi-DUT testing of WLAN access points, cellular handsets, infotainment systems, and other IoT multistandard devices that include cellular, wireless connectivity, and navigation standards.

 

 

Figure 4. The NI Wireless Test System (WTS)

 

The WTS couples NI’s PXI vector signal transceiver (VST) and multicore processing technologies to deliver industry-leading test speeds. With faster measurements, users reduce the cost of manufacturing test for wireless devices. On the software side, the Wireless Test Module based on TestStand provides ready-to-run test sequences for devices from wireless chipset vendors such as Qualcomm and Broadcom, and the SCPI interface allows remote automation over Ethernet and smooth integration into existing manufacturing lines.

 

With these features, users are seeing considerable efficiency gains from their test equipment and further reducing their test costs. HARMAN selected the WTS to test its eCall device and platinum NI Alliance Partner NOFFZ to integrate the WTS directly into its production line. “We tested multiple wireless technologies ranging from Bluetooth to WiFi to GPS and cellular all with the same equipment using the NI Wireless Test System,” said Markus Krauss of HARMAN/Becker Automotive Systems GmbH. “The WTS and NOFFZ’s RF test engineering expertise helped us significantly reduce test time and the time it took to get our test systems up and running.”

 

“The WTS allowed us to reduce our test costs by more than 25 percent. We are able to test four devices in parallel, with three antenna ports each, using multiple wireless technologies all with the same equipment"
   —Enrique Gutierrez, peiker acustic GmbH & Co. KG 

» Read the Case Study

 

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7. Summary

As the devices you have to test become smarter, you are left with a question: Do I trust my instrument vendor to innovate fast enough for my business needs? Or perhaps more importantly, is it worth risking your business to find out?

 

Whether you're buying or building your next test system, you need a smarter approach to test. The NI combination of an open platform and thriving ecosystem give you the confidence to trust yourself in testing smart devices. Don’t believe us? Check out the business impact of our approach across industries and applications. Join the Test Leadership Council, where you can interact with business and technology leaders working hard to lower their cost of test and time to market. Or, talk with your local sales engineer about how this approach can work for your company. Just don’t delay—your DUT is getting smarter by the minute.

 

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8. Learn More

 

The mark LabWindows is used under a license from Microsoft Corporation. Windows is a registered trademark of Microsoft Corporation in the United States and other countries.

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