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

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