VTI Instruments Shocks and Vibrates the Industry with a New Architecture. But What’s Inside???

VTI rocked the mechanical test industry at the IMAC show today by launching a new family of “Smart” Dynamic Signal Analyzers.  Dynamic Signal Analyzers (DSA) are precision high-speed multi-channel data acquisition instruments for mechanical applications.  Any product where noise, vibration and harshness (NVH) must be critically measured and controlled uses these devices in the development and testing phase. Think of tuning the sound coming from a motorcycle exhaust, the compression of a jet turbine engine or the flex pattern on an airplane wing, and you get an idea of the span of applications addressed by these instruments.  Years ago I used an HP 3565 DSA, the quintessential “box” DSA, to tune the flatness of a set of subwoofers I had built.

Hewlett Packard, and then VTI, continued the development of DSAs in VXI.  VXI proved a perfect match for NVH applications: modular for scalable channel counts, register-based for high speed, and a range of “static” data acquisition instruments (temperature, pressure) for other common mechanical measurements.  VTI purchased the mechanical test business from Agilent in 2003, and the VT1432B family has been the preeminent DSA family in the industry.  VTI was a founding member of the LXI consortium, and launched a new family of data acquisition products based on LAN, and the IEEE 1588 timing standard.

Fast forward to the breaking news.  Today, VTI launched the SentinelEX Series, which they call their 4th generation architecture.  Let’s dive into what they have.

SentinelEX is branding for a family of measurement solutions, some of which are pre-existing. What is brand new is the EMX Series, which they describe as “precision reconfigurable modular instrumentation”.  The module photos and chassis specs tell us the information that is otherwise hidden: These are all PXIe instruments!  This is confirmation of Prediction #9 to “expect at least one VXI vendor to bring out its next generation application in PXI or AXIe.”  This is exactly what VTI has chosen to do.

Let’s start with the chassis.  VTI introduced a 9-slot chassis (EMX09) with an integrated controller that includes an embedded GbE LXI interface, a small status display, and IEEE 1588 timing for synchronization between chassis even if they are geographically distributed. All slots are PXIe compatible, with a hybrid slot included.  So, let me ask this question: Is this an LXI product or a PXIe product?  Answer: Both!  What VTI has essentially done is created an application-focused product, leveraging PXIe. Sound familiar?

Now to the modules. VTI has a series of DSA modules. The EMX-4250 series are 8 and 16 channel digitizers at 204.8Ks/s each, with 24-bits of resolution. Both are optimized for AC coupled transducers, needed for vibration analysis. Additional modules can serve as breakout boxes for BNC connectivity. For higher frequencies, VTI is introducing the EMX-4350: Four differential channels at 625Ks/s each, with <98db distortion and 0.001 db flatness. All of these can be augmented by the EMX-1434 synchronized source. It includes 4 independent channels of 192Ks/s arbitrary waveform generation, an integrated tachometer, and 4 channels of Digital I/O.  It brings the capability of a synchronized DSA source and rotational measurements.

There’s more.  A lot more.  Other modules bring dynamic strain and voltage measurements, high-density thermocouple measurements, RTD measurements, and general purpose data acquisition modules (DIO, Analog In, Analog Out).

Shock and awe.  Finally, for very high speed and pyroshock applications, VTI is introducing a family of 10Ms/s digitizers that have 1Mhz and 5Mhz analog bandwidths. Overall I counted 22 new products being introduced by VTI!

These are very impressive specifications.  Furthermore, the products are user customizable through AXI based FPGAs, and can use MATLAB, Simulink, and other model-based design tools for high-speed real-time analysis. On top of this, VTI offers a wide range of software solutions, supporting data acquisition, DSA and NVH applications.

What VTI isn’t doing, at least right away, is offering these modules as stand-alone products. The modules are mixed and matched, and then integrated within the chassis, to solve specific complex mechanical challenges. With a simultaneous introduction of 22 new products, I can see why they need to focus.  Tom Sarfi, VP of Business Development at VTI, describes the introduction as “a revolutionary modular product family for the DSA/NVH market, thus beginning the largest wave of product introductions in our history that will continue over the next few months.”

Note the end of that sentence again, “…thus beginning the largest wave of product introductions in our history that will continue over the next few months.”  There’s more to come.

Kudos to VTI for such an exciting announcement, and for their innovative use of combining the LXI, IEEE 1588, and PXIe architectures.

By Larry DJ

NI’s 2012 Automated Test Outlook: On the Mark?

National Instruments releases its annual Automated Test Outlook this time each year.  It’s not released yet, but a good preview of five key trends can be found in Richard McDonnell’s article here. When the full report is available, we’ll link to it.

Nevertheless, the highlighted trends give insight into the industry, and into NI’s own strategic views of the industry. The five trends identified this year are:

  • Transforming Test Into A Strategic Asset
  • Portable Measurement Algorithms
  • PCI Express As System And Interface Bus
  • Explosion Of Mobile Devices
  • Integration Of RF Design And Test

Here’s my own take on each of these:

Transforming Test Into A Strategic Asset.  Definitely the case.  The very best companies manage the test processes for time to market, cost and quality.  This is particularly true in industries where the complexity of the DUT (Device Under Test) requires considerable testing. That is, where the testing is both mission critical and difficult. For some industries, the cost of test has not kept pace with the cost reductions of the DUT.  The very best companies treat that gap as a potential competitive advantage by developing creative ways to lower their cost of test per DUT.

Portable Measurement Algorithms. The title is ambiguous, but is explained in the text of being able to locate measurement algorithms anywhere: on an external PC, in embedded processors on the instrument, or in FPGAs within the instrument or module. Absolutely, this is occurring. While NI’s flagship product LabVIEW is highlighted in the article, MATLAB algorithms are also commonly deployed within instruments, including traditional instruments such as digital oscilloscopes. A wildcard in all of this is LabVIEW FPGA, which allows users to develop embedded FPGA code without knowledge of VHDL. If this catches on in a big way, it will fundamentally change the paradigm of programmable instrumentation.

PCI Express As System And Interface Bus.  Absolutely.  The low latency, bus speed, and direct memory-mapped architecture of PCIe are what enables the speed advantages of modular instruments. Not just for PXI, AXIe has embraced PCIe too.  We’re seeing PCIe added to traditional box instruments as well, though principally as a data streaming interface.  Joining NI, Agilent has added PCIe I/O as part of their standard I/O library.  The one impediment to PCIe becoming truly mainstream is the ease of use: it is significantly harder to configure a PCIe-based system, and many computers don’t treat the interface robustly.  Solve this, and PCIe is off to the races.

Explosion Of Mobile Devices.  Not as the device under test, but actually as part of the test system, perhaps as remote access.  Color me skeptical. I’m not saying tablet or smart phones won’t be occasionally used as remote browsers of test results.  I’m just suspicious if doing so is all that transformational. If most systems still use a powerful laptop or desktop as a controller, it’s not clear to me how disruptive of a force mobile devices are. Perhaps they could play a critical role in data acquisition or monitoring systems where the sensors are located remotely.  That NI has chosen this as one of their key trends tells me they may have some interesting strategies to address this. Keep an eye out for that.

Integration Of RF Design And Test.  I’m sure that it is a complete coincidence that NI added this trend after acquiring AWR mid-2011.  In all seriousness, evidence of this trend has been underway for some time. Agilent’s “Connected Solutions” links measurements to their ADS simulation software, for example.  Nevertheless, it’s a development of growing importance. Not just for traditional RF, but also for high-speed digital design, which is now in microwave territory.  Simulations are critical, and simulation programs need accurate models. And accurate models need measurements.  Think of SPICE and IC-CAPS for the semiconductor marketplace. There is one other twist to this: more and more of RF is being defined digitally, as in software defined radios. This means the holy grail is simulation at the system level. Easier said than done. Big reward to whomever can solve it.

In summary, a pretty good list of trends. Some are provocative, and many have upside potential. All give you clues where NI may be headed.

By Larry DJ

China: Modular Instrument Battle Zone

Sharpen your swords.  Two battles are brewing in China- the battle between traditional and modular instruments, and the battles within the modular segment itself between vendors and standards. This makes the China automation market one of the hottest and most dynamic test and measurement prizes in the world.

For those who want background on the China market, I highly recommend viewing Frost & Sullivan’s webcast “Growing Market for General Purpose Test Equipment in China” while it is still posted.  Special recognition should be given to the presenters: Frost and Sullivan’s Wei Wei, and Evaluation Engineering’s Rick Nelson.  Jessy Cavazos also answered questions in the Q&A.

It is 50 minutes well spent. I’ve been to China more times than I can count, and the quantitative information presented by F&S matches what I’ve witnessed at customer sites and trade events.  I won’t repeat their presentation, but instead go directly to the bottom line:

VXI and PXI modular sales were $42M in 2010 out of the $389 GP market, as defined by F&S, 10.7% of the total.

F&S forecasts in 2017 that VXI and PXI modular sales will be $143M out of $714M GP market, or 20% of the total.

Do the math.  Basically, they project modular instruments to grow at a 19% rate, compared to a 9% rate for the total industry, and 7% for traditional instruments through mathematical extrapolation. By 2017, only oscilloscopes will be a larger product category than modular systems, and even then the gap will be small.

Can modular instruments achieve this? Absolutely! I’m on the record for predicting China modular growth this year of 25%, though based on a less rigorous modeling method.

Here’s why. Look at the industries F&S reports are driving China growth: aerospace/defense, communications, industrial automotive, and electronic manufacturing. These are also the key industries driving the adoption of modular systems.  Whether attracted to modular formats for size, speed, or flexibility, these segments have a natural match with modular solutions. I’d add digital and semiconductor in the mix too.

The bottom line is that F&S is forecasting open modular instrumentation to outgrow traditional instruments in T&M’s fastest growing region by 12 points.  Think about that.  This is setting up an epic battle between vendors, touched on in the report. It is also setting up a battle of standards.  VXI has the largest installed base, though was recently exceeded by PXI sales, which are projected to deliver the incremental growth.  Meanwhile, AXIe is a wildcard, particularly in semiconductor and aerospace/defense.

The battle has begun for test and measurement’s fastest growing market.  Choose your swords.


By Larry DJ