Autotestcon Day 2
Larry Desjardin- September 17, 2012The second day of Autotestcon arrived with a deep fog around the Disneyland convention center. No, we weren’t transported to Neverland overnight, just a coastal fog that had crawled in from the shore. I think I faintly heard Pirates of the Caribbean from the midst. I was reminded that the test and measurement industry has strong roots with Disney; Hewlett Packard’s first order was a group of eight HP200 oscillators to Disney Studios for the creation of the film Fantasia.
I was still pondering what I saw the first day as I wandered across the hotel complex. Readers who missed that coverage can find it here. Soon I was heading through the entrance into Autotestcon 2012.
First stop was with Tom Sarfi of VTI Instruments. Astute readers may recall VTI’s PXI introduction earlier this year. At the time, VTI emphasized the signal analysis capabilities of the new products, with little mention to the new PXI platform they had adopted. Now they were introducing the 9-slot PXIe (PXI Express) chassis as a product on its own merits. It is a very nice industrial design with an embedded display that indicates chassis status. The CMX09 brings 4-lane PCIe to every slot with a switch architecture optimized for PXImc (PXI MultiComputing). While it can accept single-slot system controllers, VTI’s own LAN interface extends IEEE 1588 synchronization to every slot, allowing synchronization of a multi-chassis system.
Tom Sarfi is Chairman of the VXIbus Consortium, and VTI was displaying their large range of VXI switching solutions. He explained to me that VTI would continue to support both platforms, particularly due to the large installed base of VXI in mil/aero applications. Indeed, Autotestcon has a high density of VXI instrumentation. This is particularly impressive as it is a 25 year old standard.
Next stop was National Instruments. Matt Friedman guided me around their booth. I reported on the Vector Signal Transceiver earlier, so we went directly to the new chassis and controller NI has introduced. The PXIe-1085 is an 18-slot all hybrid chassis. I’m a big fan of all hybrid chassis, which allow standard PXI or PXIe modules to be inserted in any slot. Though this chassis design can be a bit more complicated and costly, it offers great option value to the users. NI extended this concept to its logical conclusion by routing 8 lanes of PCIe to every slot instead of specifying some as 4 and some as 8. Installed in the chassis was the new PXIe-8135 embedded controller. Sporting a third generation Intel i7 quad core processor and USB 3.0 ports, the controller brings the latest processor technology to the PXI format. I asked Matt if they see more embedded or external controllers. Politely declining to specify an exact ratio, he indicated that each had a significant share of the applications for reasons that are explained here.
Matt also showed me the PXIe-1066DC chassis, which will be deployed in eCASS, a maintenance system used by the US Navy. Highlighted are the high uptime features of the chassis. It can be outfitted with redundant fans and power supplies. If one fan fails, the others increase their speed to make up the difference until the failed fan can be replaced. The process is similar with the power supply. All the fans and power supplies can be replaced from the front of the rack without removing the chassis from the test system. This minimizes any downtime of the system. The chassis operates from 210-300VDC shipboard power. This chassis has also been deployed in other high-reliability applications, such as high-energy physics.
While at the NI booth, I was joined by the team from CACI, developers of CBATS (Common Bench-Top Automatic Test Set). CBATS is a PXI-based system aimed to replace legacy manual bench equipment at military depots. You read that right- this is a previously manual bench application being performed by PXI. It is used by technicians for troubleshooting avionics and replaces several basic instruments by integrating common functionality into a single PXI chassis with common user interface. Think of it as a basic multimeter, counter, D/A, A/D, digital I/O, power supply, oscilloscope, and synchro/resolver combined. A programmable FPGA module in the chassis adds additional flexibility, such as emulating custom signals. It is not necessary to replace all bench instruments; high performance instruments can be shared from the equipment pool when needed. But for many applications the CBATS tester by itself is sufficient. It is currently deployed at Hill Air Force Base and Robbins Air Force Base.
Walking upstairs I arrived at the booth of Cambridge Instruments. CI is a new entrant onto the PXI scene and introduced two new RF CW (Continuous Wave) synthesizers at the show. Their value proposition is high density with good signal purity at an attractive cost point. The QuantumWave 4062 sports two CW channels, each with an output range from 25 MHz to 6 GHz in 3Hz increments. Maximum output power is in excess of 10 dBm on each channel with 30db of control range. The 4122 is also dual channel, but with one channel with the above specs and another spanning from 6 GHz to 12 GHz. It is an interesting strategy to focus on the cost and density advantages of CW sources. CW generators are used in a number of applications such as dual tone testing, adjacent channel interference, and beacon simulation. Cambridge Instruments hinted that they will be offering a vector signal generator based on the same technology.
Back downstairs to the Tektronix booth. This year Tek was showcasing their bench instruments. Though not new, the booth highlight was the Tek MDO4104-6 mixed domain oscilloscope. MSOs (mixed signal oscilloscopes) have been a well defined product category for many years. MDOs add an RF input, simultaneously capturing and displaying analog, digital and RF signals. I was shown the scope measuring the response of a PLL (phase lock loop). One could see the SPI control interface (digital), the VCO voltage (analog), and the frequency output and spectrum (RF) all at once. It was a nice combined package.
During lunch I had the chance to speak with Lauri Viitas of Guzik Test and Measurement. Guzik offers a line of AXIe digitizers that range from 4 channels at 10Gs/s to a single channel at 40Gs/s. Lauri told me they had taken their first order and had several more in the funnel. Most of these involve research labs or high-energy physics. Though each module has an enormous 64Gs of memory, they are finding applications where users are demanding more. This is where the AXIe local bus comes in. Lauri indicated that they have an active effort to stream data at 40GB/s (320Gb/s) to a companion DSP module that can process the data or send it remotely for off-site storage. It’s a great example of the AXIe local bus.
After lunch I met up with Peter Hansen at the Teradyne booth. While most readers may recognize Teradyne as a semiconductor test company or as a vendor of in-circuit testers, this is the Defense and Aerospace business unit that focuses on mil/aero functional test. Teradyne is well known by its history of supplying VXI-based digital test to the US Navy programs of CASS, RT-CASS, and eCASS. Complementing the VXI equipment, Teradyne has introduced a high-speed digital subsystem (HSSub) based on PXI to test serial signals up to 3.125Gb/s. The PXI chassis acts as a single instrument, receiving commands from an external system controller over LAN. HSSub includes optical to electrical and electrical to optical for testing optical links, and each module includes a real-time processor that can be programmed to handle the protocol and data on a link. I was intrigued that Teradyne also offers a small 4-slot PXIe cage that can be mounted remotely, close to the DUT (device under test). Think of it as a small, remotely mounted head for high-speed digital signals.
Next on my list was meeting Chris Ziomek of ZTEC Instruments. ZTEC has recently introduced a VSA (Vector Signal Analyzer) and VSG (Vector Signal Generator) pair capable of the full 160MHz bandwidth of 802.11ac, an emerging wireless LAN standard. I don’t know if it is the first VSA/VSG pair to support the full 802.11ac bandwidth, it may be, but it is certainly the only one that does so in only 4 slots for both. 802.11ac will drive a wave of new instrument demand due to its demanding specifications. Chris told me they have already deployed the new products at one site that could grow to 20 systems, and there is good demand and interest from other 802.11ac developers. While design verification is the major application now, expect to see manufacturing build-ups as 802.11ac gets deployed on laptops, tablets, cell phones, and access points.
While ZTEC offers instrumentation in the modular and box formats of VXI, PXI, and LXI (whatever the customer demands), Chris believes the future is heavily PXI-based due to the advantages of modular instruments. He believes that the flexibility and upgrade path as standards change give modular instrumentation a distinct advantage over monolithic designs. It certainly appears that the new RF formats lend themselves well to a modular approach.
My next stop was OpenATE, a company that I was unfamiliar with. OpenATE is a Taiwan-based company that offers PXI-based modules to system integrators developing semiconductor testers. These are alternative solutions to big-iron ATE, often focused on mixed-signal and lower volume semiconductors where cost of test is critical. They have customers in Taiwan, Korea, and Europe, and are actively pursuing the US market. Their slogan is “Buy a Module, Get One Tester”. While that may seem a bit overstated, the modules are actually very capable. The PEMU32 offers 32 channels of 10MHz digital I/O with programmable levels, 64M of vector memory, and a PMU per pin. The PE16A offers 16 channels at 50MHz, also with a PMU per pin. Of course, these can be mixed and matched with other PXI cards for a mixed signal test system.
I briefly dropped by the Tegam booth. Tegam is known as a manufacturer of precision instrumentation, such as microohmmeters. They displayed a PXI-based differential amplifier that essentially serves as a front end for PXI digitizers. It sports 50MHz of bandwidth, differential inputs, AC/DC coupling, and gain and offset adjustments. They are currently deployed in military ATE systems as an oscilloscope-like front end for single range digitizers. It’s a great example of a company with special expertise filling a missing need in an open system modular format.
My final stop was at JTAG Technologies. Explaining what JTAG is, otherwise known as IEEE 1149.1, is at least an article in itself. Essentially, JTAG is a boundary scan standard that is implemented on many semiconductors and PCBs (printed circuit boards). While most of the testing described in this article is functional test, boundary scan is actually a type of structural test- looking for process defects such as opens and shorts. I was intrigued that JTAG Technologies offers a PXI version of their boundary scan products, such as the JT 37x7 PXIe Controller. This allows a new type of test technique called JFT (JTAG functional test) that is actually a hybrid of the two. With decreasing PCB geometries making it increasingly difficult to deploy in-circuit test, this may be a key part of the future solution to testing PCBs. Expect me to write about this in the future.
I never entered the Disneyland theme park, but by the end of the day, I felt I had been on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. There was innovation exhibited at every corner. It is too bad that some of the armed services did not attend due to the location being adjacent to a theme park. If they had, they would have seen a metaphor to another Disney movie: The Incredibles.
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