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Engineers Turn to Automated Test Equipment to Save Time

With engineers rushing tests in order to hit tight product deadlines, the market for test equipment that automatically detects faults in semiconductors and other components is growing.

Setting aside time for testing has been a struggle for electrical engineers. The shrinking size - and increasing complexity - of semiconductor circuits is not making life any easier. Nearly 15% of wireless engineers are outsourcing final testing and more than 45% contract manufacturing – when most semiconductor testing takes place – according to a Microwaves & RF survey that will be released next week.

Almost 65% of the survey respondents said that testing is still a challenge in terms of time consumption. New chips designed for tiny connected sensors and autonomous cars also require rigorous testing to ensure reliability.

Tight deadlines for delivering new products is forcing engineers toward using automated test equipment, also known as ATE, to quickly identify defects in semiconductors, especially those used in smartphones, communication devices, and consumer electronics.

The global automated test equipment market is estimated to reach $4.36 billion in 2018, up from $3.54 billion in 2011, according to Transparency Market Research, a technology research firm.

Automated test equipment is used extensively in semiconductor manufacturing, where integrated circuits on a silicon chip must be tested before it is prepared for packaging. It cuts down on the time it takes to test more complex chips, which are incorporating higher speeds, performance, and pin counts. Automatic testing also helps to locate flaws in system-on-chips, or SoCs, which often contain analog, mixed-signal, and wireless parts on the same silicon chip.

Automated test equipment is not only being used to weed out defects, industry executive said, but also to tweak parts for lower power consumption and higher accuracy. “This becoming an economical way for manufacturers to get higher yields out of increasingly finicky lithography,” Mark Jagiela, chief executive of Teradyne, one of the largest ATE makers, told investors in a conference call earlier this year.

Teradyne reaped $963 million in revenue in the first half of 2016, up 13% from the same time last year, according to its financial filings. But at the same time, the company has generated little revenue from its wireless test equipment, which has followed the decline of the entire wireless testing market. Many analysts have predicted that the release of fifth-generation, of 5G, wireless technology will reverse the decline in of wireless testers.

The downturn suggests that the needle is moving slowly toward automated test equipment. Many engineers are still using traditional test equipment from companies like Anritsu and Keysight Technologies, the former test division of Hewlett Packard.

But major wireless test equipment makers are starting to include more automated features into their products. National Instruments recently announced that it would add a digital pattern instrument for automatically testing wireless circuitry to its PXI platform. Anritsu has incorporated new features in base station testers that enable continuous testing, which can be monitored and controlled from a smartphone.

The other major ATE companies include Japan’s Advantest and LTX-Credence, which together with Teradyne account for more than 85% of the entire market, which has consolidated in recent years with falling equipment prices.

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