Test & Measurement: Exciting Times Ahead

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New human interface devices like touch, gesture and speech recognition will take centre stage this decade, making it possible to analyse data like never before

UMA BANSAL


CZZ_Keithley_Picture---4225-PMU-new
Keithley 4225 PMU

MARCH 2011: Test and measurement (T&M) instruments have remained the backbone of all manufacturing and service industries for several decades. But though they play pivotal role in most industrial segments, all the attention was earlier enjoyed by core industry devices. The scenario has, however, changed now. From being a less glorified performer, T&M instruments have come to be recognised as star performers.

In 2009-10, the T&M industry in India grew by 10.8 per cent. The total market size today stands at Rs 8 billion—up from Rs 7.22 billion of the previous fiscal year. Ever-changing technology, application needs, advanced industrial environment and growing demands are inspiring T&M manufacturers to keep in sync. As a result, the T&M industry has witnessed many changes in terms of technology upgradation, price competency and new products over the last few years.

Sectors driving the growth
Aerospace and defence, telecom, manufacturing, government and education sectors are the biggest growth drivers for T&M in India. These sectors need T&M and monitoring tools to help engineers accelerate the performance of computing and networking through high-speed serial technologies; apply digital RF technologies to create flexible wireless networks and mobile devices; incorporate embedded systems; and facilitate high-quality video through multiple digital formats and channels.

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Apart from these traditional sectors, solar and LEDs are the prominent growth drivers today.

“The telecom sector needs instruments for high-frequency measurements. The defence sector needs high-reliability instruments and the educational sector needs low-cost instruments,” says Chandmal Goliya, managing director, Kusam Electrical Industries.

The growth of T&M in the telecom sector has been fuelled by the fast growing subscriber base and arrival of new technologies like 3G, WiMAX and LTE. “There is a large requirement for on-site installation and service of equipment in telecom,” says Manish Kwatra, CEO, Metro Electronic Products.

“For telecom applications which combine voice, video and data, devices such as protocol analysers, network analysers, volt/amp/watt meters, logic analysers and signal generators are in large demand,” adds Rajesh Suresh Joshi, manager-business development, Dynalog (India).

There is tremendous potential for T&M in the defence industry too. “India’s total spending on the defence industry is expected to reach $36 billion by 2013. For supplies to defence, it is mandatory that a certain percentage of these be sourced locally even in the procurement deals signed with foreign suppliers,” informs Neelam K. Kumar, executive director, Aplab Limited.

“The aerospace and defence sector would mostly be interested in high-end vector network analysers, spectrum analysers and signal generators up to 50 GHz,” adds N.V. Valsalan, head-test & measurement and broadcast, Rohde & Schwarz India.

The increasing automation in various industries, including automotive, food and beverages, and textiles, will need sophisticated test instruments at various check points of every stage to minimise repairs afterwards in the production lines.

Devices available
Gautam Awasthi, general manager (marketing), electronic measurement group, Agilent Technologies India, classifies T&M devices into two broad categories based on their usage: Advanced/application-specific and basic.

 

Major applications

1. Communications (cellular test, wireless and wireline tests, optical)
2. Aerospace and defence (surveillance, signal intelligence)
3. Research & development (digital, RF, microwave, etc)
4. Security (surveillance, military communications)
5. Core electronics (data acquisition, control, automation, semiconductor, component test, nanotechnology, RF and microwave)

—Gautam Awasthi General Manager (Marketing) Electronic Measurement Group Agilent Technologies India

Advanced or application-specific. Equipment such as network analysers, protocol testers, spectrum analysers, and cable and antenna testers cater to specific T&M requirements and therefore fall under application-specific category.

Cable and antenna testers measure cable losses, distance-to-fault functions, etc and are normally used in field installation and maintenance. Similarly, spectrum analysers are used in spectrum monitoring, checking the hopping and interfering signals in a particular band, and characterising any particular communication standard.

Basic. Equipment such as multimeters, power supplies, function generators, oscilloscopes and frequency counters come under basic category and can be seen on every electronics test bench. These instruments are normally used in general-purpose debugging of the device-under-test.

Recent trends driving innovations
Wireless. The combination of advanced technical capabilities brought about by digital RF and the increasing customer demand for more functionality and seamless mobility has led to a number of innovations in wireless communications. The latest advancements in T&M are mostly pertinent to WiFi test systems, SIM card tests and network testers.

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“Latest technologies like LTE use MIMO antennae with 2×2 configuration enabling data rates of 100 Mbps in downlink and up to 50 Mbps in uplink. This means that today’s test equipment should be able to simulate such scenarios and also handle multiple radio access technologies to facilitate testing,” says Valsalan.

DSA-X 92504A digital signal analyser by Agilent Technologies
DSA-X 92504A digital signal analyser by Agilent Technologies

Embedded systems. Embedded technology is being used to deliver new applications and services in a variety of industries including consumer electronics, industrial electronics, automotive, avionics, medical and communications. A major trend on the design side is energy efficiency. Integration of more switch-mode power supplies in embedded systems is bringing about test issues. The use of a switch-mode power supply obviously introduces switching into the end product.

Another key trend is dynamic power management. Embedded system designers using off-the-shelf processors will spend more time looking at power usage. Hence they need to learn how to better program the devices with programmable frequency and voltage scaling.

In general, embedded systems are rapidly becoming more complex and this applies not only to high-end handsets but also to low-cost children’s toys. This, in turn, will lead to system-level test issues, which is eventually leading T&M vendors to package more tests into their instruments.

Serial data communication. The shift from parallel to high-speed serial data communications is one of the significant trends in recent times. So USB compliance testing is an important area for test and measurement. There are already some six billion USB devices worldwide. And with USB 3.0 poised to enter the design mainstream, it’s a technology with huge growth potential.

Digital storage oscilloscope by Kusam Electrical Industries
Digital storage oscilloscope by Kusam Electrical Industries

One important implication for test equipment going forward is that the expertise to validate channel compliance needs to be embedded into the instruments. Besides, advanced serial protocols are likely to make probing more challenging.

Video. In the video industry, T&M will continually evolve as new technologies arrive and picture/audio specifications and delivery systems change. It will be a whole new ballgame with digital video and its multiple formats, compression methods, screen sizes and other variations. The transition to higher-resolution digital video requires a new class of test and measurement tools for broadcasters to accommodate newer, faster and more complex technologies such as HD, 3G-SDI and IP.

Semiconductor chips. Keeping up with the design trends is pretty challenging for T&M companies. This eventually means designing ever-more capable front-end ICs for next-generation instruments.

The steadily shrinking prices of microprocessors make it financially feasible to incorporate multiple microprocessors into the design of inexpensive instruments. In this way, each different instrument function (display, analogue-to-digital conversion, etc) has its own dedicated microprocessor, allowing far higher throughput as no function has to wait its turn for processing by a central processor.

At the same time, as the worldwide demand of semiconductors for cellphones, portable wireless devices and consumer electronics grows, T&M designers have to offer instruments capable of testing the increasingly sophisticated components that go into these devices.

T&M design trends
Increasingly complex testing requirements are driving T&M manufacturers to improve and incorporate features like multichannel testing, higher bandwidth and smoother PC interface with user-friendly software. Transition from analogue to digital, and from standalone instrument to a total test solution, and development of application-specific test instruments are the primary transitions.

Driven by the user need, there is transition towards hybrid test equipment that occupy less space but perform multiple functions. Test equipment are now no more mere benchtop. These are increasingly becoming integrated with PCs for real-time measurements and monitoring by adopting PXI (peripheral extension interconnect), PCI (peripheral component interconnect) PC-based platform and VXI technologies.

Software-defined instrumentation based on National Instruments’ LabVIEW graphical programming platform, parallel processing technologies, and new methods for wireless and semiconductor tests help engineers develop faster and more flexible automated test systems.

MSO 5204 mixed-signal oscilloscope by Tektronix
MSO 5204 mixed-signal oscilloscope by Tektronix

Also, T&M instruments today incorporate highly graphical displays/readouts and are easier to interface with external ancillary equipment such as part handlers, probers and switches. Use of new communication interfaces and smart switching is changing the way they are used.

New communication interfaces. Until recently, instruments employed GPIB and serial (RS-232) interfaces for PC communications. Today, however, most system instruments include Ethernet, or better yet LXI and USB interfaces, in addition to the legacy buses, which may be provided as optional or standard equipment.

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“Over time, higher-performing and lower-cost interfaces will win out over legacy interfaces such as GPIB on rack-and-stack instruments. But this displacement is likely to take years to transpire,” anticipates Klaus Leutbecher, vice president-worldwide sales, Keithley Instruments.

Smart switching. Manufacturers of switching hardware for automated testing have been talking up this concept for production test applications for close to two decades. Now some new designs employ an embedded test script processor (TSP) that offers enhanced capabilities for controlling test sequencing/flow, decision-making and instrument autonomy.

“Users program and communicate with TSP-enabled instruments in two ways—either by executing individual TSP commands (similar to sending individual SCPI commands) or by writing test scripts. Designed to reside on the instrument or switch mainframe itself, such scripts are a collection (list) of instrument control commands and/or program statements that can be executed on command. The use of these scripts can eliminate the transmission time from the PC to the switch system because all commands and statements in the script are executed by the mainframe. For switch mainframes equipped with an LXI interface, all TSP configuration and script loading and data transfer can be performed via this interface,” explains Leutbecher.

What’s coming
If the last decade is anything to go by, the next one holds tremendous promise for the test and measurement industry.

“We will see ultra-high-speed networks making it possible to access all the content from the Web online. This could make test and measurement platform-independent and available through the provider’s portal as a service harnessing the power of multiple connected systems to perform complex measurements and analysis. Perhaps, a more modular app like system would be the order of the day with minimal footprint on the client device and demand-based selection of features online,” says Yasir Fahim, general manager, ADInstruments.

 

Key challenges for manufacturers

1. Lack of electronic devices, discrete or embedded, indigenously available
2. Hybrid equipment thwarting the sales of discrete testers
3. Constantly evolving standards and technology, particularly in wireless
4. Growing rental market restraining the sale volumes
5. Heavy influx of imports, especially low-value products
6. Misperception about the use of T&M instruments
7. Lack of qualified, trained hardware and RF engineers
8. Price-sensitive customers and hence price constraints
9. High initial investments
10. Trading more profitable than manufacture under present policies
11. In-house demand volumes are very small
12. Lack of motivation and favourable policies from the government

—Neelam K. Kumar, Executive Director, Aplab Limited, India

New human interface devices like touch, gesture and speech recognition will take centre stage, making it possible to analyse data like never before. “Touchscreen panels and ultra-portability are expected to translate into significant leaps forward for the test and measurement industry,” says Mohammed Ghouse, country manager (business communication), Scientech Technologies.

Wireless sensing will get further refined and more accurate. Technologies such as wireless charging for telemetrical probes will establish in the mainstream right down to the consumer electronics level.

According to Mrs Kumar, “Demand for synthetic instrumentation (with high performance, less footprint, ruggedness, high levels of integration, faster testing, flexibility and reconfigurability) is probably the next big wave in T&M.”

Ultra-fast I-V sourcing and measurement capabilities are becoming increasingly critical for many technologies, including compound semiconductors, medium-power devices, non-volatile memories, micro-electromechanical devices (MEMS), nano devices, solar cells and CMOS devices as well as high-power discrete or so-called high-brightness LEDs. Using pulsed I-V signals to characterise devices rather than DC signals makes it possible to study or reduce the effects of self-heating (joule heating) or to minimise current drifting in measurements due to trapped charge.

Transient I-V measurements allow scientists and engineers to capture ultra-high-speed current or voltage waveforms in the time domain or study dynamic test circuits. Pulsed sourcing can be used to stress test a device using an AC signal during reliability cycling or in a multi-level waveform mode to program/erase memory devices.

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Caddo iSeries by Scientech Technologies

Emerging 3G and 4G communications standards are driving investment in the performance products and mainstream embedded applications are increasing in demand.

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Spectrum analysers are also seeing an increase in demand as needs for greater wideband performance in radar and spectrum management increase, particularly in intelligence, regulatory monitoring and defence applications.

Manufacturers face challenges, though
81F_Mahjor-Contributors-newThe challenges before T&M manufacturers can be summarised in three words—smaller, faster and cheaper. In other words, their products must be able to characterise ever-smaller components more quickly and less expensively. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the development of instrumentation for nanotechnology research.

Nanotechnology has the potential to improve our quality of life in diverse ways, such as faster electronics, huge memory/storage capacities for PCs, cheaper energy through more efficient energy conversion, and improved security through the development of nanoscale bio- and chemical-detection systems. However, before these new technologies become commercial realities, researchers must be able to characterise nano material and device properties quickly and accurately.

Electrical characterisation is essential to gain insight into phenomena that occur beneath the surface of nano materials. For example, gate dielectrics in advanced semiconductors can have a physical thickness of less than one nanometre; the performance of these dielectrics can be predicted only by evaluating their equivalent electrical thickness. Similar considerations apply to carbon nanotubes, silicon wires and graphene—the basis for many nano innovations.

One of the main challenges in electrical characterisation of nano materials and structures is dealing with ultra-low signal levels. Another challenge is the wide range of behaviour that these materials and components can exhibit. For example, polymer materials can have resistances greater than one gigaohm. However, when drawn into fibres less than 100 nm in diameter and doped with various nanoparticles, a polymer may be changed from a superb insulator into a highly conductive wire. The result is an extremely wide range of test signals.

Detecting tiny electrical signals at the low end of the range requires high-sensitivity, high-resolution instruments such as electrometers, picoammeters and nanovoltmeters. Also, using these instruments for high-level signals as well demands instruments with a very wide dynamic range.

T&M manufacturers are also faced with the challenge of a shorter turnaround time. With the turnaround time (concept to design to volume production) increasingly becoming shorter due to the market competition, new and efficient methods of verifying the integrity and quality of handsets and similar products are required by all handset makers. With elements of design regularly being developed in different places, it is important to have common industry-standard test tools that enable groups to share information and resolve problems quickly. The quickening rate of technology changes means a faster cycle time for new products entering the verification stage.

High-volume manufacturing requires innovations from T&M vendors so as to lower the test costs. Handset manufacturers demand solutions that can help them reach the market faster with a lower cost of testing and consequently a lower cost of production.

India: Still a costly affair
“There are already a few Indian T&M companies having their manufacturing base in India, while it is not the case for MNCs. In India, the import duty on raw materials is still high and therefore importing the finished goods is cheaper than locally producing them. As the Indian T&M market is still taking the shape and India is yet to be known as one of the best places for EMS, setting up manufacturing facility in India may be a costly affair for any global T&M maker,” says Sumit Sharma, marketing manager-India, Good Will Instrument.

Need of the hour
There are a few steps that can be taken to help India become the R&D hub for T&M equipment.

Naresh Narasimhan, country marketing manager, Tektronix India, says, “Companies are looking at world-class manufacturing and lean manufacturing techniques to reduce the production costs so that the benefits can be passed on to the end-user. Having said this, the infrastructure should be improved tremendously. Besides, the government should change its policies and automation should be considered. Components and sub-systems required for manufacturing, like chassis/power supply modules, should be made available at zero duty. Excise duty and sales tax for electronic test equipment (presently 8.24 and 12.5 per cent, respectively) should be brought down. Finally, more manufacturing units from support industries like plastic moulding units for quality cabinet design and manufacturing are needed.”


The author is executive editor at EFY

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