Standardising platforms from characterisation to production

Author : Darcy Dement, National Instruments

05 September 2016

Figure 1: PXI based NI STS is scalable enough to be deployed in both characterisation and production.

In 1983, the first commercial mobile phone retailed for $3995, almost $10,000 in today’s economy.

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It supported a single band, weighed almost a kilogram, and was about the size of a brick. Two decades later, a quad-band “world phone” costs a few hundred dollars. Even a basic mobile phone that supports over 20 cellular bands, in addition to Bluetooth, Wireless LAN, and GPS technology, retails for under $100 today.

While this dramatic drop in price has significantly benefited consumers, it has created substantial challenges for those supplying the RF components inside. According to a recent Databeans analyst forecast, the cost of radio frequency integrated circuits (RFICs) for mobile devices has dropped by more than 40 percent since 2007. This price decrease is coupled with the challenge of rising device complexity. Ten years ago, a single-function GSM power amplifier was the norm. Today, many RFICs are significantly more complex. They support multiple radio standards and multiple bands with more advanced technologies such as dynamic power supplies, MIPI digital interfaces, and more.

To maintain margins while the average sales price shrinks, companies must reduce the cost of semiconductor design and test. (While not everyone works in the semiconductor field, it’s historically been a good indicator of test trends that impact other industries down the line.) Given that test cost is often nearly half of the cost of goods sold, according to IC Insights, RFIC suppliers have a renewed focus on decreasing the cost of manufacturing test. Over the past decade, this intense focus has produced a significant shift from using turnkey ATE solutions to building in-house and cost-optimised testers based on off-the-shelf instrumentation. The ability to specify a tester for a specific IC device—along with improvements in instrumentation technology—can significantly reduce test cost. This shift to a custom tester approach has been a large factor in the success of modular instrumentation platforms like PXI in manufacturing particularly because modular instruments have shown excellent value per performance.

Competition and innovation increase pressure on cost

As intense market competition and an ever-accelerating pace of wireless innovation complicate the desire for lower costs, recognising that these forces require shorter product release cycles for companies to stay competitive is important. With much of their manufacturing test costs already reduced through the use of modular instruments, organisations must find new ways to improve the efficiency of product development.

Once considered the holy grail of product development, one increasingly important practice is to shorten the product design cycle with standardised design and test tools. In the past, product development teams often used different design and test practices and equipment in each phase of product development. With this approach, the engineer validating silicon and the engineer designing the manufacturing test plan were often left to design their own tester from the ground up.

To be profitable, companies must improve efficiency between each phase of the product development cycle. As a result, many companies are adopting integrated platform approaches to help reduce total test costs as well as shorten time to market. As the 2015 McClean Report says, organisations must place greater effort into “decreasing IC design, development, and fabrication expenditures in order for the industry to maintain its continuous reduction in cost per function.” Furthermore, test managers identify additional benefits of having a common test platform between validation and production test as reducing transition time and ensuring measurement correlation. 

Although the desire to use a common test platform from design to test is not new, innovations in test equipment are now making that possible. A decade ago, the test equipment engineers might have used in their characterisation labs was simply not fast enough for high-volume manufacturing test, and using different tools throughout the product life cycle was a necessity.

Figure 2: Companies can reduce time to market by adopting a common platform and using the same core measurement technology throughout the design cycle.

Today, PXI instruments offer the measurement accuracy required for R&D and the speed required for manufacturing test. As a result, organisations are increasingly standardising on modular instrument platforms throughout the entire design cycle, which directly reduces the cost associated with correlating measurement results. In addition to the improved speed and measurement quality of PXI, application-specific systems, such as the NI Semiconductor Test System, build on the PXI platform by adding a rugged enclosure, fixturing, DUT control, and the turnkey software required for the semiconductor manufacturing environment (see Figure 1). 

One example of standardisation on a platform across the development cycle comes from the home healthcare business unit of a global, multibillion-dollar company. Its challenges were that the explosion of feature-rich products warranted up 100x more test variants, and strong growth in new markets increased regulatory compliance and quality expectations. According to a Senior Director of Quality and Regulatory Affairs, “By using a common validated automated test platform, our design and test engineers can collaborate earlier in the design process and test more extensively, which resulted in an 86 percent reduction in cost per embedded software defect.” Because capturing product design defects in production or in the field is significantly more expensive than in the design phase, this early collaboration across design and test teams brings significant benefit. Indeed, by reusing a common platform across the development cycle, it saw a 347% increase in test application development productivity, and overall for the project, the company saved $4.5M annually in test automation and test development. 

At the same time, there are challenges in implementing a standard platform, namely conflicting test objectives and differing organisational structures and management chains. Some best practices to overcome these challenges are to identify business metrics pertinent to all groups, find an executive sponsor, and involve internal customers in the decision making. 

Mergers and acquisitions drive standardisation

Other factors driving the need to standardise on common design and test platforms are mergers and acquisitions within the semiconductor industry. Although the consolidation of suppliers enables companies to address a larger set of components in a particular mobile device, it uniquely impacts the engineering teams responsible for delivering products to market. 

This impact is usually caused by merging geographically distributed engineering teams that have their own preferences in programming languages, test strategy, and tool investments. Product development inefficiency often emerges when distributed teams do not share common best practices. 

As a result, many organisations are in the midst of standardisation. One critical focus is using a single codebase from automated measurements in R&D to automated measurements in manufacturing test. By sharing a common codebase of test software, along with using the same core measurement technology throughout the design cycle, organisations have reduced test software development cost and ultimately decreased time to market (see Figure 2).

Status quo leaves money on the table

Just as the digital age commoditised digital ICs, the information age is commoditising analogue ICs. Commoditisation comes with lower cost, and it requires a dramatically new approach to test. In an era where test strategy is considered a competitive advantage, organisations are using standardisation on a common platform as a method to reduce test costs. However, if an organisation is not considering a common platform approach for test, it might be in trouble. Although the old way is sometimes easier, the additional cost and inefficiency leave company profits on the table.

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