Technology historians may well look back on 2017 and 2018 as having sparked a golden age of test and measurement innovation, restructuring, and leader remaking. While all good companies are both predicting and responding to customer needs, the industry is well into a hyper-test environment with extreme pressure toward lower cost on one end, while pushing the outer limits of system performance on the other. Of course, both must be accomplished while accommodating ease of use and shortening “time to insight.”
How equipment vendors and users respond to the conflicting dynamics in the next few years will affect who stays at the top of a test and measurement industry that MarketandMarkets expects will grow at a CAGR of 3.55% from $23.51 billion in 2017 to $28.98 billion in 2023. The end applications driving this growth include healthcare, IT and telecommunications, and automotive. However, the specific mix of trends and technologies that are stressing both equipment vendors and users include the Internet of Things (IoT), the accelerating shift to 5G, the massive amount of testing required for “the connected car” and autonomous vehicles.
Further upstream, in the datacenter, where all the generated data eventually comes to rest, they are wrestling with 100- and 400-gigabit-per-second Ethernet (GbE) data transfers and related power integrity, channel characterization, and signaling issues.
Another interesting dynamic from the vendors’ perspective is the consolidation of the semiconductor market, which narrows their potential customer base, and is pushing an emphasis on excelling in manufacturing and production test. All told, the changes and pressures hint at a reshuffling of leaders, with a more flexible approach to test clearly coming to the fore.
According to a report by Frost & Sullivan, the top five participants in the RF test and measurement market are Keysight Technologies, followed closely by Rohde & Schwarz. Next come Anritsu and Teradyne, followed by National Instruments in fifth place. The requirements of the market in the next few years may see a reshuffle, depending on how the respective companies solve for user requirements.
Strategy 1: Rigorous Testing the First Time Out
To help understand the decisions being made by test equipment providers, it’s useful to take a quick look at some of the pressures designers and test engineers users are dealing with. In the case of the IoT, for example, time-to-market demands are putting designers new to wireless connectivity and security under pressure to learn quickly the nuances of wireless and RF design and implement appropriate security measures and then learn how to test them appropriately, with a scant budget.
With over-the-air firmware updates now possible through connected devices, it’s tempting to perform baseline functional and compliance testing, and ship product as soon as possible—and then, fix any issues that pop up through regular updates. This assumes the user will allow or enable the updates, or that the IoT device developer has the means to do it independent of the user.
Ak Emarievbe, founder of Belvor Technical Resources, a firm that specializes in providing turn-key solutions and consultancy services for wireless device and mobile network testing, has seen this happen, but advises strongly against it. By doing so, “You aren’t taking into consideration the business impact: your brand is at stake,” he says. “And then there are safety and indemnification risks, so I’m a firm believer in rigorous test.”
Along with brand destruction, not performing rigorous electromagnetic compliance (EMC) tests for RF and emissions opens the door to FCC scrutiny. Just last November the agency slapped an as-yet unnamed company with a $90,000 fine and an obligation to send periodic reports to show it is in line with a strict compliance plan. The company’s equipment fell out of compliance with rules governing devices operating in the Unlicensed National Information Infrastructure (U-NII) bands. The Commission’s action was a clear and deliberate warning to device and equipment manufacturers that regulatory non-compliance will not be tolerated: they could have their authorization to market their products in the U.S. rescinded.
However, mistakes happen and features still need to be enhanced or enabled, so OTA firmware and software updates still have a role to play.
Strategy 2: Low Cost, Ease of Use
It’s clear that bare-bones testing isn’t an option for serious product developers, so vendors are responding in various ways to help lower cost and make test easier. “The tools have to be user friendly and turn-key,” says Emarievbe. “Many companies doing IoT don’t have the resources of an Apple or a Qualcomm.” Jessy Cavazos, industry director for test & measurement at Frost & Sullivan, pointed to the influx of newer engineers “that are raised on major consumer devices like the iPhone and tablet.” A complete redesign from the ground up is required, says Emarievbe.
As part of its “Shift Left” strategy, which takes a holistic view of the full prototype, design, and manufacturing test chain, Tektronix undertook a redesign that addresses the cost, and ease of use, and time-to-market issues. This included a complete redesign of the user interface. “Our new 5 Series MSO has a faster and more intuitive touch interface,” says Pat Byrne, president of Tektronix. It also has a stacked display mode and its FlexChannels provide 4, 6, or 8 digital channels and up to 64 digital channels, “along with the ability to switch between analog and digital on any given port without missing a beat,” says Byrne.
Tektronix’s 5 Series MSO addresses the cost and ease of use part of the company’s Shift Left strategy toward a more holistic approach to test that pushes more to the front of the development chain. (Courtesy of Tektronix)
Tektronix’s over-arching Shift Left strategy comes about as recognition that the role of test in design verification and simulation needs to be spread more evenly from the end of the development process to earlier phases in the development cycle. “A big part of this Shift Left work is to work toward a model where testing, simulation, compliance, and validation tools work together and yield similar results,” says Byrne.
Another dynamic at play that is putting further downward pressure on cost is the disposable nature of the wireless devices being developed, said Adnan Khan, senior business development manager at Anritsu Company. As IoT technology evolves, chips, modules, and sensors are falling in cost. “Subsequently the cost of testing needs to be reduced to match the high-volume but low-cost market,” says Khan. “There needs to be different testing at the chipset level, module level, and end host device level.”
Given the low cost imperative, “the entire ecosystem, including the T&M market, has become creative in cost and time-to-market (TTM) dimension in the IoT space.” One clear path to reducing test cost, says Khan, “is to have reuse of tests across the different hardware and only test the delta on what’s needed.”
Strategy 3: Flexibility
Given the nature of the two technologies, it seems counterintuitive that they would have similar requirements, but 5G and IoT both need flexible test solutions. From the IoT perspective, Anritsu’s Khan pointed to the need to address both short- and long-range technologies. These include Bluetooth and Wi-Fi for short range in the unlicensed bands, and longer-range LTE, NB-IoT, and LTE Cat M1 and M0 in the licensed bands.
“Given the variety of technologies that need to be verified, we need to develop flexible and efficient test solutions that reduce the cost-of-test,” he says. Anritsu’s solution to this problem is the MT8870A Universal Wireless Test Set, specifically designed for high-volume manufacturing test.
Anritsu’s MT8870A Universal Wireless Test Set takes a modular approach to support multiple wireless interfaces for high-volume manufacturing test. (Courtesy of Anritsu)
It has a mainframe form factor with modules that support the major protocols, including LTE Cat M1, LTE, NB-IoT, V2X, and Zigbee/Z-Wave, as well as the latest Wi-Fi and Bluetooth standards.
The modular approach provides the flexibility to add more as designs evolve, making it a good end-of-line test instrument.
To test access-points (APs) and stations (STAs), Anritsu also has the Wireless Connectivity Test Set, the MT8862A. This evaluates the Wi-Fi protocol and measures the Tx/Rx characteristics of WLAN devices (IEEE 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac).
As useful as the MT8862A may be, the rise of MIMO in Wi-Fi and now massive MIMO technologies in 5G, combined with the move to millimeter wave (mmWave) bands at 28 GHz, 39 GHz, and higher, makes coupling over cabling unrealistic. Instead, over-the-air (OTA) testing is required, which in turn requires the use of large, expensive, fully shielded walk-in anechoic chambers to perform controlled tests.
Few companies can afford these, so it often requires that devices under test (DUTs) be physically brought or sent to a lab for a fully battery of tests. However, octoScope has developed another option: the octoBox personal wireless testbed.
The octoBox personal wireless testbed allows fully OTA testing and coupling between AP and STA, at any location. (Courtesy of octoScope)
“With the octoBox personal wireless test bed, engineers can run an automated battery of common tests and shorten a typical QA cycle from weeks to days,” says Leith Chinitz, octoScope’s CTO. The tests include throughput, roaming, association capacity, and adaptation to impairments such as interference, path loss, multipath, and motion. As it’s possible for each engineer to have a completely isolated personal testbed at their desk, “different tests can be performed in parallel by multiple engineers and results saved in a common database,” says Leigh. The DUT inside the octoBox rotates on a platform to simulate movement and ensure tests and done from every possible angle.
5G Favors Modular vs. Big Box
At the time of this writing, the first of the 5G NR standards are about to be finalized by the 3GPP at a meeting in Lisbon. While it seems to be coming fast, National Instruments has been preparing for longer than anyone, says James Kimery, the company’s director of marketing and RF communications, explicitly claiming the title of leader in 5G test.
It’s generally accepted that the nascent stage of the standards begs a highly flexible, modular, software-based approach to avoid having to constantly redevelop hardware. However, the devil is in the details. Keysight and NI have taken the open-standard PXI module approach. “While others such as Anritsu and Rohde and Schwarz also have strong credentials, their modular approach is ‘proprietary modular,’” says Cavazos. “Keysight has been able to put solutions together very quickly for customers using PXI.”
The use of a software-based approach, while useful, can lead to incompatibilities, says David Hall, senior group manager of test systems at NI. “The net result over time,” he says, “has been a vast set of disparate software tools that do not interoperate throughout the software workflow of building, deploying, and maintaining a test system.” NI has addressed this with its LabVIEW NXG and SystemLink, “which independently tackle engineering challenges from different parts of the engineer’s workflow,” says Hall.
While the high-frequency and wide-bandwidth testing required for 5G is not new to test-equipment vendors that have been catering to military and aerospace customers, the low-cost requirements and the rate of change of the standards and the number of frequency bands will continue to keep them under pressure to step up.
Data Center Challenges Increasing
With data rates now reaching to 400 GbE with PAM 4 signals, and soon PAM 8, Cavazos sees both as a great challenge for test-equipment vendors supplying bit-error-rate testers (BERTs). However, she also sees a great opportunity for designers to increase throughput without increasing band bandwidth. This assumes they can offset channel losses, minimize signal distortion, and keep a high signal-to-noise ratio (SNR).
To help them make accurate measurements under these conditions, Tektronix claims that its DPO700000SX 70-GHz real-time oscilloscope has the lowest noise in the industry. It emulates clock recovery, receiver equalization, and filtering required for an electrical reference receiver and signal analyzer.
Keysight and Anritsu are also in the BERT space and with PAM 8 on the horizon, all will be eager to keep and expand their market position.
Hallmarks of a Leader
For designers on the front lines, there are solutions from startups that can reduce a $200,000 test system down to something that meets their specific requirements for $10. However, as many of those we spoke to are quick to point out, it’s important to think it through. Large companies such as NI, Keysight, Anritsu, and Tektronix spend a lot of time in industry standards meetings and know what’s coming and are already preparing for it.
Yes, says Emarievbe, look for turnkey solutions. “But do your research to make sure you aren’t debugging their [test vendor’s] equipment in your lab,” he adds. Sometimes lower cost brings unwelcome surprises. If the costs prove too much for the task at hand, consider renting or leasing from companies such as Continental Research.
Also, factor in that both good vendors and rental companies have support teams that can help and advise on an appropriate test strategy, and the equipment necessary to get it implemented.
Finally, the upshot of the IoT is that a good test vendor will be incorporating data-gathering and analysis techniques to help accelerate “time to insight.” If they aren’t doing so, ask when they plan to start.