Trends in Electronics Test Equipment
Oscilloscopes, analyzers and software
I had a chance to attend the Test & Measurement Innovation Forum yesterday, organized by Tektronix. I haven't been doing a lot of hardware testing lately except for basic current and voltage measurements using my humble multimeter. But complex systems need sophisticated equipment. Measurements have to be precise and the results must be presented to the user in an easy to understand manner.
Precision measurement is getting tougher with each new generation of devices that are released into the market. Systems are migrating from mere 10Gbps to more than 100Gbps. This means that the bandwidth of the test equipment must be higher, short rise times and minute jitter must be measured accurately. In some cases, such as LPDDR4 memory, even the probes have to evolve so that signals can be tapped out cleanly.
At the keynote address, Tektronix President Pat Byrne, pointed out some key trends in this space. While test equipment may be getting more sophisticated, it's important to keep it simple for the user. Too many controls can confuse rather than clarify. Common functions can be designed on the panel as buttons and dials but further controls can be done on the display itself. In fact, some new generation equipment now support touchscreen interface. In the age of smartphones and tablets, the way we interact with our devices has changed. Why not bring that familiarity into the world of testing?
Electronics is evolving at an incredible pace and equipment vendors need to keep abreast of these changes. They have to constantly innovate. A few innovations from Tektronix caught my attention:
- Asynchronous Time Interleaving (ATI): When signals move to higher bandwidth beyond what ADC components can sample, frequency interleaving is an alternative. Another approach is ATI in which each ADC sees the full spectrum and the samples are combined cleverly to minimize noise and preserve SNR fidelity. Tektronix equipment can therefore support a bandwidth of 70GHz.
- PC-driven Equipment: The RSA306 is an example where signal acquisition is done on a handheld portable device with an antenna. It is powered via a PC USB. All the processing is done on the PC. This is an innovation that's likely to interest small companies and even start-ups. Cost of ownership is low. Tektronix SignalVu-PC software can do 17 different types of measurements.
- Mixed Domain Oscilloscope (MDO): Why have multiple equipment if an oscilloscope can be combined with a logic analyzer and a spectrum analyzer into a single equipment? This is the idea of MDO. Byrne made an important point that digital engineers should get comfortable looking at and analyzing RF spectrum. With the Internet of Things upon us, wireless is going to be everywhere.
Indeed, IoT was a recurring theme at the event. Byrne gave an interesting perspective when he called it the Interference of Things. This explains why Tektronix, traditionally a maker of oscillosopes, is beginning to get into the PHY layer of standardized wireless protocols. Some of their equipment can now decode Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and LTE signals at the PHY layer and thus enable pre-conformance testing.
The presence of IoT was plain in the exhibits, which featured local start-ups. Two companies were into home automation: HASP (Home Automation Smart Plug) and PhotoElectricChefs. Cardiac Design Labs have a portable system for ECG monitoring. They have used a Bluetooth-enabled monitoring device that the patient wears. Data is gathered and analyzed on an Android tablet nearby. If any anomalies are detected, Wi-Fi or cellular is used to get data into the cloud and notify the cardiologist.
Tektronix would like to support start-ups. Some of the existing start-ups could not afford to buy the equipment but they were given access to equipment and Tektronix labs to test their prototypes. I think this is really cool! While Tektronix clearly serves many big players in the industry and are closely involved in contributing to standards, they are supportive of Indian start-ups as well. A lot of their design and product development happens in India. They know and believe that innovation can happen in India. In the long term, this will reduce our dependence on imports.
Challenges of today and future are in high speed transport systems very commonly used in data centres all over the world; in wireless where quite often multiple wireless bands have to coexist; in managing crosstalk and interference in mixed systems where analog has to coexist with digital, or power and data lines are close by as in the upcoming USB Type-C standard; in ultra-low power systems where noise floor must be extremely low and power efficiency must be high.
As usual, engineers are always up to these challenges. By God, they live by challenges!
About the Author
Arvind Padmanabhan graduated from the National University of Singapore with a master’s degree in electrical engineering. With more than fifteen years of experience, he has worked extensively on various wireless technologies including DECT, WCDMA, HSPA, WiMAX and LTE. He is passionate about tech blogging, training and supporting early stage Indian start-ups. He is a founder member of two non-profit community platforms: IEDF and Devopedia. In 2013, he published a book on the history of digital technology: http://theinfinitebit.wordpress.com.