The rising cost of testing has sent "big iron" ATE providers scurrying to find new ways to add value to their systems, and now makers of benchtop test instruments are following suit.
At the International Test Conference back in 1999, Intel's Pat Gelsinger challenged the ATE industry to combat the soaring cost of test, which will soon equal the cost of designing and manufacturing a chip. While test has notoriously been labeled the "back end" of the IC cycle-as well as the back end of industry's technological advancements-several benchtop test providers are now aggressively pursuing ways to pack more functionality into their products.
The innovators in benchtop test equipment, which is used more often during research and development than in manufacturing, include large vendors like Agilent (Englewood, Colo.) and emerging players such as IFR Systems (Wichita, Kan.). According to Mark Briscoe, a product-marketing manager for logic analyzers and oscilloscopes at Tektronix Inc. (Beaverton, Ore.), the increasing commoditization of silicon has put the heat on test and measurement companies.
"If you look at the PC, everything but the processor is a commodity, and the companies left building processors are now low-cost manufacturers," he said. "The last domain is in graphics chips, but they're coming way down in price, too. So the cost of test seems a lot more expensive as a percentage of the overall cost of building a chip, and it's something that always drives us"
Paradoxically, the future of benchtop test and measurement gear is likely to focus on increased functionality and greater ease of use. "Something that's big in our industry is 'time-to-measurement,' that is, how long it will take you to set up our instruments so you can actually measure something," Briscoe said. "We're always looking for ways of enhancing ease of use."
Joe DePond, Agilent's growth and emerging-technologies strategic-planning director, echoed the call for simplification. "As far as what the equipment will look like five years down the road, I think we're going to see an increased emphasis on ease of use and connectivity," he said. "Putting performance issues aside, things like that really impact the industry, and we'll have a continued focus in those areas."
Tek and Agilent, which between them own almost the entire logic analyzer market, have taken parallel, but separate, courses toward greater ease of use.
Tektronix recently released the Integrated View (iView) platform, a way of correlating analog signal data from an oscilloscope and superimposing it onto the digital signals captured on a logic analyzer. Coupling the company's TDS family of oscilloscopes-ranging from the high-performance TDS7000 series down to the streamlined TDS3000 series-with its TLA600 or TLA700 series logic analyzers, iView lets users view time-correlated scope waveforms on the logic analyzer display, with bandwidths up to 4 GHz, using a Windows platform.
The high end of Tek's logic analyzer line is the TLA700 series, which consists of three 102- or 136-channel modules that can be merged to yield 408-channel modules. The machines provide 500-ps timing resolution on all channels and achieve state acquisition of up to 200 MHz, with a 400-MHz data rate for advanced processors and buses.
Tektronix began 55 years ago when its founders invented the triggered oscilloscope, and the company's work in that area today continues that tradition. Offering DPO, DSO and sampling oscilloscopes that range in bandwidth from 50 GHz to 60 MHz, the company found that most of its customers were using logic analyzers in conjunction with scopes, so it designed the iView software for ease of use.
"Across the world, about 90 percent of our customers use an oscilloscope with a logic analyzer. That was a much bigger number than we expected," Briscoe said. "With iView we're pulling analog information into the logic analyzer, so now they don't have to use two different displays and compare from one to the other."
Agilent's ease-of-use initiative extends to its benchtop test instruments. "We're looking at ways to get those instruments to play together better," DePond said. While Agilent offers logic analyzers with the option of a built-in oscilloscope, the add-in is not a complete, full-featured oscilloscope.
"We've made some large improvements in terms of the tool set, and how our benchtop users use the tool, with some connectivity capabilities on the logic analyzer," DePond added.
Agilent's IntuiLink software offers its logic analyzer users the ability to pull up real-time data on the Internet to enable joint troubleshooting or joint productivity over geographical boundaries. The company has also begun moving its logic analyzer and oscilloscope line from Unix to Windows.
For the benchtop, Agilent offers a range of logic analyzers priced from $400 for the 5062-7379 rack-mount kit to $15,500 for the Agilent 1670G, a 136-channel, 150-MHz-state, 500-MHz system. On the scope side, Agilent offers the 54700 series high-bandwidth system, available in both 20- and 50-GHz modules, the top end claiming to offer one of the industry's highest throughput rates.
Another test and measurement player that has taken aggressive steps toward greater functionality and ease of use is Keithley Instruments Inc. According to marketing manager Mark Cejer, Keithley is focused on providing consistent data along a range of products.
Cejer cited the 2750 multimeter/switch system, a combination digital multimeter and switching technology. "It combines the functionality of a couple of different types of products," he said. "It has the capabilities of a factory-floor ATE product in a form factor that can be used throughout a company-in the R&D lab, on a technician's bench, in quality assurance or for product development.
"You can have consistency in your data with this capability," Cejer went on. "What often happens is that product development guys will use a certain piece of equipment, the production guys will use something else, and they both say, 'My product is right'. With the 2750, if something funny happens in the manufacturing process, you have data that's consistent throughout."
Another example of Keithley's integration efforts is the 4200-SCS semiconductor characterization system, which combines lab-grade dc device characterization and real-time plotting and analysis with sub-femtoamp resolution. "We took that functional test capability and brought it to a smaller form factor," Cejer said. "Our newer products tend to address these issues. The 2400 source meter, for example, combines sourcing and measurement capabilities-like a few pieces of an ATE rack being shrunk into one box for the benchtop."
While known for multimillion-dollar systems, Teradyne (Boston) has released a series of streamlined benchtop testers, mostly for high-volume, low-cost applications such as microcontrollers for smart cards. An example is the Integra J750, which delivers up to 1,024 digital channels in a "zero footprint" system contained within the test head. The system addresses low-end and midrange semiconductor test needs with memory test, mixed-signal, scan test and redundancy analysis options.
"Wherever there's a niche for low-cost machines, we're interested in filling it," remarked Tom Newman, vice president of corporate relations at Teradyne. "Our charter is to respond to both of those trends in the industry-to keep up with the complexity as well as to aggressively fill those niches for the lower end.
"The J750 is a good example. Some MCUs, while complex, are built by the billions and sell for 50 cents-the kinds of MCUs that go into toasters or garage door openers or microwave ovens. People can't afford to test these things for 20 minutes at a time," Newman said. "Not only is the capital cost a lot less for the J750, but we added to that the ability to test a huge number in parallel."
The focus on simplifying use while integrating more features can be found across the board, from ATE giants to lesser-known players. In the wireless realm, IFR Systems has been making inroads with its 6845 microwave system analyzer, a spectrum analyzer that includes a 46-GHz tracking generator. Targeted at engineers who manufacture, install and maintain radio links, satellite links and microwave systems, the 6845 system offers a group delay option and offers simultaneous measurement and display of group delay and amplitude response over the full frequency range.
According to Keith Slinn, product line manager for IFR's signal, spectrum and microwave analyzers, new features will be added to the system with an eye on ease of use.
"We've got some more software features to make the 6800 series easier to use. We've built in a number of applications that guide the operator through some critical measurements," Slinn said.
Tektronix's Integrated View (iView) lets users view time-correlated waveforms from oscilloscopes on a logic analyzer display.
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