The latest trend in PXI is…boxes!

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Modules versus boxes has been a debate going on in ATE circles since the time of the mods and rockers. Modular PXI systems are fast, small, and offer increasing parametric performance. Traditional “box” instruments are easy to use, portable, and offer front panels and displays for manual bench operation. The two formats orbit around different value propositions. But the latest trend is the increasing use of PXI to create one-box testers and traditional bench instrumentation. In this column I talk with seven companies, and get their unique perspectives on this topic.  The companies are Agilent Technologies, LitePoint, Aeroflex, VTI Instruments, Marvin Test Solutions, National Instruments, and RADX Technologies.  Why are they doing this? What benefits to the user and vendor? What downsides? To find out, read the entire article here.

National Instruments releases 2014 Tech Trends

Each year, National Instruments releases an outlook for the industry segments it serves.  These are released as documents available from their web site.  Last year, NI released four: one each for automated test, data acquisition, embedded control, and education.

This year, NI released just two- an overall trend watch across all markets called NI Trend Watch 2014, and another focused specifically on automated testing.  Though this column traditionally serves the test market, I’m going to focus this blog post on the overall report, NI Trend Watch 2014.  There are many interesting aspects to this report.

First of all, as a fellow prognosticator, I have sympathy with NI.  It isn’t easy to predict new trends every year in the measurement industry.   There trends are worth a read.  But if you have limited time, you can just read my review.

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Increasing the speed of traditional box instruments

Frequent Test Cafe readers are familiar with the speed advantages of modular instruments.  But just to recap, modular standards such as PXI or AXIe gain their speed advantage in functional test applications by avoiding the ASCII interpretation bottleneck of traditional “box” instruments.  Recall that traditional instruments are typically programmed by SCPI commands, Standard Commands for Programmable Instruments.  These natural language commands take milliseconds to interpret, while driver execution is measured in microseconds.  I’ve seen PXI DMMs (digital multimeters) perform a complete measurement in 50 microseconds, including the command time.  A traditional LXI instrument wouldn’t have traversed the TCP/IP stack in order to send the first character in that time.  The bottom line is that SCPI is optimized for portability, not speed.  For top speed, you need pre-compiled high-speed drivers that manipulate an instrument’s native memory map directly over a low latency interface.  PCIe-based systems like PXI and AXIe do exactly that.

But are there ways around this bottleneck to make traditional box instruments competitive?  Yes- there are some tricks that users or manufacturers can employ to narrow the difference or even equalize the playing field.  Let’s review some here.

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Modular instrument highlights of 2013

So, where are we with modular instrument adoption in 2013?  It appears that modular systems have again outgrown traditional instruments by double-digit amounts.  Part of this is due to 2013 being a soft year for the industry overall, so this wasn’t a particular large hurdle.  However, the relative growth rate of modular instrumentation shows that PXI and AXIe continue to take share from their traditional counterparts.  

Why is this, and what are the sub-currents? Segment, drivers, acquisitions, architectures, I have it covered.  For the most integrated summary you will ever read of the 2013 modular instrument market, go here.

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