Information is the key to decision making in automated test

19 February 2013

Planning ahead is essential in business, especially in the current economic climate. The more information that decision makers have available, the better the strategy that is developed.

There are many resources available to assist the decision making process, but many of these are developed by analysts and they can cost many thousands of pounds to access. There are very few free resources on specific markets that are available.

An exception to that rule and one of the best free research resources I have found is the annual Automated Test Outlook from National Instruments. Each year the company surveys customers, academics, reviews independent research and uses its own experience to develop a report that will look at the trends in test for the coming year. The Outlook goes further than just looking at technological trends, it also looks at business and economic trends for test.

The Outlook covers the many industries that automated test covers including aerospace and defence, automotive, consumer electronics, semiconductor, telecommunications and transportation.

1) Test economy; The 2013 Automatic Test Outlook starts with the business prediction that test economics will become more important. Like every other area in the workplace test must be subject to budgeting and provide maximum value for money. This is especially true if the company looks at the test process as one that does not add tangible value to the final product.

Proving value obviously has to be measurable, and that is very difficult if a process is considered of intangible value. Value for money and efficiency are becoming even more vital as the pace of technology change mean that test equipment can have a shorter shelf life that ever before.

The Automated Test Outlook cites Philips as an example of how to keep the cost of test low while increasing efficiency. Philips uses a single team to define test strategies for both design and test areas. This strategy has proven effective in finding efficiencies in processes as well as being able to find faults earlier in the process, which leads to overall cost savings.  

2) Big analogue data; The second theme covered in this year’s Automated Test Outlook is big data. There is no argument that big data is going to be a feature for most areas where IT is concerned, and the infrastructure being built for cloud services can easily be taken advantage of for test.

New technologies such as 802.11ac are so complex that a single test run can generate terabytes of data. That data must be stored and analysed. The ability to host that data in a remote location while analysing it can save major hardware investment. 

Big data can also assist with the economic aspect mentioned in the first prediction as it allows the testing strategy to be analysed for performance and improvements in efficiency.

3) Software-centric ecosystems: To me this is a huge area that will make a massive change in the industry. Almost every manufacturer has unique needs. Traditionally the manufacturer would tailor its test requirements around the test equipment that it already had purchased or new equipment that was on the market. The number and type of tests it could run was limited.

Now an emerging trend is for test equipment manufacturers to offer much more customisation. This can either be achieved in hardware with reprogrammable devices like FPGAs or through software changes. Reconfigurable test systems like this will allow test engineers to be able to create their own systems for their own specific requirements. There is also a benefit in that it will also allow test equipment to be easily repurposed for other applications, which will help justify the capital expenditure mentioned in the first prediction.     

A great example of this new type of machine is the Vector Signal Transceiver (VST) launched by NI last year. The VST is based around a Xilinx Virtex 6 FPGA, which can be easily reconfigured using LabVIEW to fulfill any number of different testing roles for RF designs.

4) Test quality software: Prediction number four follows directly on from the previous point. If test systems become more software-centric, then it is important to ensure that this software is fit for purpose. This is especially true for testing for mission critical applications.

There is already a movement in certain industries to bring the quality of test software under the oversight of regulatory bodies. For example, the aeronautical industry has expanded DO-178C to cover test for the first time. The automotive industry has also taken a look at test software and includes documentation for test software in its ISO 26262 regulation. In other areas also there also should be movement towards ensuring test systems will confirm to the same standards as the tools used to build software. 

The result of this change is that test engineers must be capable of understanding the software design process and developing tests that match theorised results. These changes mean that they need to become familiar with the techniques used in embedded system software development. Another new responsibility for test engineers is that they must also be familiar with any relevant industry standards and use equipment that makes it easy to generate the documentation required to provide compliance with those regulations.

5) Moore’s Law meets RF: The last prediction in this year’s Automated Test Outlook is that test equipment capability has generally lagged behind Moore’s Law for most applications. Now, for RF designs this can no longer be the case. Technologies such as MIMO and standards like 802.11ac require instrumentation with much higher performance to perform tests on RF equipment comprehensively with a minimum of time taking results and analysing. 

NI has gotten round this problem in the VST by sharing oscillators and other components in the VST mentioned above. The company has also improved performance with the Virtex 6 FPGA. FPGAs are ideal for processing the large parallel data streams that can be found when testing new RF technologies.

The 2013 Automated Test Outlook is free and available now from

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