“Through shared components, high-speed buses, and open, user-defined software, modular instrumentation is best suited to meet the needs of test and measurement today and in the future. NI modular instruments are the building blocks of economical and versatile automated test systems. With modular instruments, you can choose from a wide variety of measurement, signal generation, RF, power and switch modules and then configure the instruments in software to meet your specific measurement tasks. Because these instruments are modular and software-defined, they are quickly interchanged and easily repurposed to meet evolving test needs. Additionally, NI modular instruments provide high-speed test execution by harnessing the power of industry-standard PC and advanced timing and synchronisation technologies. Options are available for a variety of platforms including PXI, PXI Express, PCI, PCI Express and USB,” informs Nandini Subramanya, senior marketing communications manager, National Instruments India.
With the availability of improved semiconductor devices in smaller sizes, T&M instruments have not only become cost-effective but also smaller in size and better in performance.
“Digital storage oscilloscope is a good example. The MDO 4000 mixed-domain oscilloscope from Tektronix combines digital storage oscilloscope and spectrum analyser functions in a single unit. Scientech’s i-series products, viz, Caddo 831i oscilloscope, 4064i function generator and 4074i programmable power supply, offer digital read-out and Ethernet connectivity,” explains J.K. Baldua, director-technical, Scientech Technologies.
Agilent Technologies works closely with various standards and organisations and helps users with innovative and reliable test products.
Sadaf Arif Siddiqui, technical marketing specialist, Agilent Technologies India, informs, “Be it a basic test instrument or a high-performance instrument, we go hand-in-hand with technological advancements across all segments. A typical example is the upgradeability feature, which is present in our entire range of oscilloscopes, spectrum analysers and network analysers. We have also incorporated some unique features in our products, such as OLEDs in digital multimeters, no fans and no vents in handheld spectrum analysers, and function generator in benchtop oscilloscopes.”
Overcoming the challenges
Production volumes for T&M instruments are generally much lower than for consumer devices like PCs, smartphones and tablet computers. This means that leading-edge features common to these consumer devices, such as capacitive touchscreen interfaces and super-high-resolution colour screens, aren’t as affordable for T&M applications.
T&M instruments need to be designed with industrial-grade components that remain available for many years for design stability reasons. One reason why industrial products are typically a few generations behind consumer devices as far as interfaces and related elements are concerned is the time it takes for displays and other such components to become available for industrial products. Also, the product cycles of typical T&M product designs are much longer than for consumer devices.
Despite challenges related to scale and T&M product longevity and design cycles, a growing number of industrial components suppliers are working to close these gaps. The use of shared product platforms can help raise volumes to interesting levels for individual vendors and through value-added suppliers of such assemblies.
On the signal conditioning front, ongoing advances in semiconductor devices and analogue and RF ICs are helping to push sensitivity, signal range and speeds when used in instrumentation front-ends. Refreshing product designs frequently and, in some cases, using modular design approaches can help enable fresh access to the latest analogue components, as well as displays and user interface technologies.
Processing power for embedded designs also continues to evolve exponentially with specialised DSP and FPGA devices that are constantly increasing in speed. Multi-core processors are now available in industrial and mil-grade versions to allow more sophisticated user interfaces and digital signal processing to be used in medium- and lower-cost instruments.
Doing more in software rather than hardware helps reduce costs and improve functionality and flexibility for users and can also facilitate platform reuse and leverage.
Key trends driving next-generation devices
The global race to achieve useful, intuitive, elegantly integrated products is well underway in the T&M sphere, just as it is in the mobile phone and computing worlds.
Many of the advances in the next generation of instruments will be related to usability and connectivity to support the Internet-friendly generation of users. Though signal performance in T&M will always remain a top priority, human-to-machine and machine-to-machine interfaces will get some much needed attention.
To understand the implications of these interfaces for T&M products and vendors, one needs to just look at the smartphone revolution to see how product innovation and brand leadership in such devices can shift the dynamics of a very large consumer industry in just a few years.
To meet the reduced profit margins due to increased competition, T&M manufacturers will need to innovate and use new technologies of smart mobile devices and cloud computing.