Widely adopted in highly demanding engineering sectors, automated test equipment (ATE) are now silently making inroads in less capital-intensive sectors like lighting, too. Lighting majors are starting to realise the cost and labour benefits of using automated test equipment in PCB testing.
Manufacturers in defence, avionics, automotive, telecom and robotics industries, on the other hand, use modular ATEs to adhere to the protocols of testing. As the technology evolves, they are asking for more and more features and application updates. The biggest challenge before test and measurement equipment manufacturers, though, remains the growing demand for tools that can cut down the test time for test engineers.
To keep up with demand, automated test equipment manufacturers have graduated to an advanced version of the existing PXI platform. Named PXI Express (PXIe), it increases testing speed and bandwidth while eliminating unnecessary costs.
“Use of PXI Express has increased the speed and throughput of our test equipment by 50 per cent on an average,” says Sadaf Arif Siddiqui, business development manager at Keysight Technologies, in support of PXIe.
Let us see how PXIe platform is charting the success for automated test equipment in diverse applications.
RF test equipment
RF device manufacturers need equipment that can quicken the process of testing their devices for performance, accuracy and traceability of the components. Major players in ATE market such as National Instruments (NI), Rohde and Schwarz, Keysight Technologies and Chroma ATE Inc. have responded to this demand by upgrading their RF test instruments to PXI technology. They are now working towards increasing the bandwidth while reducing the footprint.
NI has developed its second-generation vector signal transceiver (VST) in PXI platform. Talking about it, Avichal Kulshreshtha, technical marketing staff member at NI, says, “Second-generation VST is a compact hardware with field-programmable gate array (FPGA) IC. This IC is embedded with transceiver functions, which are run by the company’s LabVIEW software. Test measurement algorithms, bus speeds and CPU speeds have reduced test times, but as RF functions get more complex, improvements are being done.”
NI claims that its recently released second-generation VST has five times the bandwidth, 33 per cent smaller footprint and larger user-programmable FPGA than its predecessor. Its instantaneous bandwidth of 1 GHz enables test systems for advanced applications like automotive radars, digital pre-distortion, 5G and 802.11ax.
Similarly, Keysight has developed Keysight Measurement Framework (KMF) for its RF test equipment. The new platform increases the test efficiency while lowering the test time.
“KMF is an easy-to-use software framework for rapid test solution development using Microsoft’s Visual Studio .NET environment. KMF (in PXI platform) helps to develop high-performance, scalable test measurement solutions, which take full advantage of parallel-processing multi-core CPUs for faster measurement processing and testing speed,” shares Keshav Bapat, general manager at Keysight Technologies.
Arbitrary waveform generators
There is a demand for more cost-efficient waveform generators, too. Manufacturers want signal generators that can replace expensive and complex systems that are customised to test only a single device.
Test equipment manufacturers have come up with arbitrary waveform generators (AWGs) that cater to this need. AWG-based signal generation can also simplify emulation of various operational scenarios during the development of radar systems, electronic warfare systems, satellite communications systems and more.
Both Keysight Technologies and NI have developed AWGs that offer increased bandwidth, resolution and number of channels. Tektronix, on the other hand, claims that its recently developed AWG offers a substantial increase in signal consistency and strength, and a sample rate of 10GSa/s, simplifying the job of signal generation and RF engineers. The device is expected to hit the market soon.
Testing challenges continue to grow as engineers develop systems with higher data rates. As speeds go up and amplitudes down, system noise becomes a major problem because it blocks important signal details. Therefore oscilloscopes are being refined for improved signal fidelity and channel scalability while occupying smaller footprint.
NI has already introduced in the market oscilloscopes based on PXI platform that offer up to 400MHz of analogue bandwidth and flexible measurement configurations. Tektronix is also gearing up to launch a high-frequency oscilloscope.
These are just a few major advances made in semiconductor, signal system and transceiver based test equipment that are primarily used by defence, robotics, communication and automotive industries. According to market players, the automated test equipment industry will continue to evolve as the requirements of test engineers grow.
Industry expert Leela Krishna, from Rohde & Schwarz, shares that sometimes the test equipment is customised to suit the particular needs of a business. “Usually, our customers from the defence sector demand high-frequency test equipment. In such a case, we tweak the software of the instrument or else try to manufacture a new hardware for the instrument.”