NI TestStand Provides the Framework to Texas Instruments $4 Billion Division

Marvin Landrum, Texas Instruments, Inc.

"By leveraging commercial off-the-shelf software technologies such as NI TestStand and LabVIEW, we achieved the level of commonality, maintainability, and reuse with our characterization platform to keep up with the design of new components. "

- Marvin Landrum, Texas Instruments, Inc.

The Challenge:

Characterizing Texas Instruments (TI) increasingly complex wireless and RF devices in a global design environment.

The Solution:

Streamlining TI characterization process with test development, management, and automation software powered by National Instruments LabVIEW and NI TestStand.


Marvin Landrum - Texas Instruments, Inc.
Mike Weir - Texas Instruments, Inc.
Scott Menjoulett - Texas Instruments, Inc.



Eliminating the Design Bottleneck

TI has been producing a significant portion of the world’s semiconductor chips for more than 45 years. With close to $4 billion in revenue, TI is one of the leading wireless IC providers. However, as design growth increases linearly with new product introductions, characterization of dozens of tests has increased exponentially, creating a design bottleneck.


With the increasing demand fueling the design of more wireless ICs, our characterization groups have been struggling to keep up. Today’s wireless designs encompass a greater number of complicated characterization tests, and our process for handling the load became inadequate. These characterization tests range from the highly integrated to system-level power management, analog baseband, RF, and custom system-on-a-chip tests as examples. The evolution of our current device characterization began with highly manual tests dependent on operator intervention and control. This was the first step, however, of an eventual semiautomated NI LabVIEW-based characterization process.


Following this was the need to automate and sequence individual characterization tests, which we solved by developing an in-house sequencer using LabVIEW. However, with the growth in demand of these devices and the fact that our RF and wireless IC design centers spanned four worldwide sites in three continents, the need for a maintainable, modular, and reusable process was needed.


We developed the fourth-generation characterization process to handle just that. It now features NI TestStand as the characterization test management and automation framework with LabVIEW device characterization modules and instrument libraries. By developing a common test management and automation framework that is deployed worldwide, it not only provides a common interface but sets the stage and provides a template for developing modular, reusable device tests that engineers can use at any site worldwide. The benefits include complete characterization automation, direct integration with enterprise-level database logging, and automated report generation and data mining using our custom DATAMINER client.


NI TestStand Provides Backbone for ACE

We developed the software architecture that includes several systems. The overall architecture is called the automated characterization environment (ACE), and, the team developed the main software component, a software framework for plug-in modules and tests, from NI TestStand. NI TestStand is the backbone of the device characterization tests and the software platform that our engineers reuse at all sites worldwide. We customized the NI TestStand process model to include integration with its distributed change management (DCM) system and the local databases.


The DCM system uses Perforce file management and is integrated with our global sites. We globally manage all characterization tests and ACE libraries. The ACE libraries include an instrument library for access to many of the common instruments of the ACE hardware platform, a measurement library for many of the functions needed by each of the characterization groups, and an analysis library. ACE supports more than 50 instruments and can be integrated into the hardware platform. Characterization groups use the NI TestStand system and download the necessary libraries to develop the necessary characterization for new devices. They create tests as needed, but much of the test uses the architecture and the pre-existing ACE libraries.


ACE also includes a data miner, which is a configurable automated report generation system that can create 700-page reports in four clicks. It supports multiple outputs --including text (ASCII), PDF, XML, and Microsoft Word -- and can mine data locally or on the central server, which is accessible anywhere in the world. There is an enormous amount of commonality between the tests, and this reuse, with a maintainable software platform, is helping our characterization to keep up with our design.


Our device characterization stations are typically built with a high-end Dell desktop using a 3.0 GHz single processor system with typically 2 GB of RAM. The operating system on most of these systems is Windows XP Professional. We chose high-end desktops because of the nature of the tests. The PLL characterization test, for example, could run for multiple days and capture more than 100,000 data points to measure jitter. For wireless and RF characterization, we typically use GPIB and benchtop instruments.


NI TestStand and LabVIEW Provide Efficient Platform 

By leveraging commercial off-the-shelf software technologies such as NI TestStand and LabVIEW, we achieved the level of commonality, maintainability, and reuse with our characterization platform to keep up with the design of new components. Using virtual instrumentation has helped us expand our $4 billion wireless and RF business without sacrificing quality and doubling the number of test engineers.


Author Information:

Marvin Landrum
Texas Instruments, Inc.
Tel: (214) 480-2987

Figure 1. NI TestStand assits in design verification process of TI semiconductor chips.