T&M Trends For RF Designers

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PXI platform shifts the complexity in hardware development to software development, which is relatively easier to manage. Thus prototyping becomes much easier and the user can integrate the PXI platform in the entire system to work like hardware-in-loop.

Demand for low-cost and customised T&M. Last but definitely not the least, there has always been a need for low-cost test equipment for the installation and maintenance industry, which continues to grow.

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The cost of a typical T&M tool kit for RF testing may vary from a few thousand dollars to over a million dollars depending upon the test requirement. For example, if it is a simple test requirement related to an undergraduate-course microwave laboratory of an educational institution (which may not require very sophisticated high-precision, high-performance test equipment), the combination of a general-purpose spectrum analyser and a signal generator will serve the purpose. But if the requirement is to test a more sophisticated system for satellite or radar subsystems, the test requirements are more stringent and the laboratory may comprise a VNA, performance signal analyser, microwave vector signal generator and many more equipment to supplement the testing needs.

There are a growing number of toolkit options available for RF engineers today. Emerging technologies require a flexible platform to keep pace with emerging communication standards. Unlike traditional RF signal generators and analysers that contain fixed features for standards such as GPS, wireless LAN (WLAN) and fixed WiMAX, virtual instrumentation provides equivalent measurement functionality while maintaining ‘Open Source’ software architecture.

Wireless standards toolkits provide a fully-flexible solution to both design and test of wireless devices. Because all waveforms are created and analysed in an Open Source software environment, one can quickly and easily introduce signal impairments, simulate wireless channel conditions and even apply custom filters. Combined with the general-purpose modulation toolkit, GPS, WLAN and fixed WiMAX toolkits can be used with both mixed-signal and RF instrumentation. As a result, engineers designing GPS, WLAN and WiMAX devices have access to a new and fully-flexible design tool for these devices. Many vendors have come up with cost-effective toolkits in the market, which range from $2000 to $6000 per licence.

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Impact of new technologies
Experts believe that new technologies in the T&M industry will act as enablers for new developments in the RF domain. RF designers will be able to develop and test new wireless standards that require more accurate and repeatable set of measurements. It will also help them to reduce the design cycle by reducing the development time and hence time-to-market.

Vishal explains, “For example, the new analyser platform has brought down noise floor close to thermal-noise floor of -174 dBm. New techniques in measurement science like NVNA and X-parameter will help RF designers develop more accurate and more efficient amplifiers and RF circuits and hence reduce the overall power requirements of the RF systems without compromising on performance. The new handheld and low-cost instruments allow RF engineers to perform accurate measurements and pin-point the problems in the field. This will, in turn, enable field engineers to troubleshoot the problems on the go without bringing the modules back to repair centres and thus reduce the turnaround time.”

Tarun believes that these new technologies will help the designer in two ways: “First, it will help to rapidly prototype complex RF subsystems using off-the-shelf hardware. High-bandwidth I/O combined with scalable processing will allow users to build prototypes very quickly, reducing the design cycle and time to market the product. Second, the testing can be comprehensive, resulting in better-quality products. The measurements that require processing of a huge amount of data can be done much faster.

“For example, PXIe backplane’s peer-to-peer streaming feature enables users to combine RF modules like VSA and VSG with FPGA-based processor modules, thus integrating acquisition, analysis and generation for high-bandwidth and real-time operation.”

What’s in the offerings?
A lot of interesting developments are underway. A few of these are listed below:
1. The industry is working towards high-performance test instruments. It is also working towards general-purpose products targeted at specific applications.
2. There is a hairline gap between the RF and digital domains, and with the increasing demand for configurability and flexibility, this gap is going to further reduce over time.
3. The industry is also moving towards building automated test solutions (ATS) catering to specific test needs. These comprise a mix of RF, digital and general-purpose test equipment along with custom-built software. Cost and performance of these ATS could further be optimised by using both box and modular test platforms.
4. Work is underway to introduce new capabilities in high-performance and modular platforms so that both can complement each other to optimise the test platforms.
5. Another major advancement relates to closer integration of design and test. Samanta explains, “The test industry has not innovated as quickly, and many companies have chosen to invest more in their design tools than in test engineering tools. The consequence is, test engineers are typically outmatched when testing the latest software-centric DUT. Pundits in every major industry have envisioned solutions to bridge this gap. A closer look at the existing reconfigurable instrumentation architecture, which is the standard for many industries today, reveals a few common themes: a system-level approach, integration of design and test concepts, and extension of software architectures into FPGAs.”

Tarun adds, “The next phase in integrating design and test is the ability of engineers to deploy design building blocks, known as intellectual property (IP) cores, to both the DUT and the reconfigurable instrument. This capability is called ‘IP to the pin’ because it drives user-defined software IP as close to the I/O pins of next-generation reconfigurable instruments as possible. The software IP includes functions/algorithms such as control logic, data acquisition, generation, digital protocols, encryption, math, RF and signal processing.

“For example, MIMO SoC includes receivers, transmitters, converters, filters, switches and a processor. In addition, it features software IP such as coding, modulation, encryption and communication protocols. To fully validate the functionality of the highly integrated hardware and software sub-components of the SoC, engineers need system-level test capabilities to effectively emulate another communication device in the system. Because many of the IP blocks of the DUT and the test system are common, this presents an ideal case for concurrent design and test with IP reuse.

“The ability of a test engineer to directly embed the SoC design IP in the test instrumentation to perform system-level test can dramatically shorten design verification/validation and improve production test time and fault coverage. There are two key trends that will enable future reconfigurable test systems to deliver this IP-to-the-pin capability: the market shift toward FPGAs and availability of high-level software to program these.”

6. There are also emerging multi-vendor IP ecosystems that feature IP cores from all major FPGA vendors as well as their software and instrumentation partners. The National Instruments’ FPGA IPNet and the Cadence/Xilinx IP microsites are examples of these ecosystems. These contain hundreds of IP blocks and functions including the Xilinx CORE Generator, serial communication protocol cores, advanced encryption standard components as well as peer-to-peer streaming algorithms.

The way forward
RF design challenges and requirements posed by specific verticals are pushing the innovations further. Going forward, we can expect the emergence of more low-cost, sophisticated, customisable, multi-functional and precise equipment to meet the industry requirements.


The author is an executive editor at EFY

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