How to survive the recession: test more with less

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In the face of difficult economic conditions, there are several things that companies using test systems can do to help themselves survive and thrive.

How to survive the recession: test more with less
Eric Starkloff is Vice President of Product Marketing For Test at National Instruments

There is no doubt that we now are facing an economic headwind. Customers I have visited around the world are trying to understand how this headwind will affect their business and what they can do to put themselves in the best position to weather this storm, and perhaps even come out of this down cycle stronger than they are now. More and more test engineers are looking at how to optimise their approach to test more with less.

Testing more with less means that you may have to re-evaluate your approach to test and, indeed, it is in disruptive conditions such as we now face that new ideas are the most prone to take hold. I believe that modular, software-defined test systems provide the greatest opportunity for testing more with less – regardless of the dimension where optimisation is needed. For example, optimising the test speed of a production system is often the best path to decreasing test costs. For other applications, reconfiguring a single tester to test multiple devices yields the best results. And in very complex testers, the capital cost may be the focus for cost reduction. For each of these situations, and in many others, the software-defined approach has proven time and time again to deliver dramatic improvements.

Let me share a few examples. In a production system, time is money. If you can reduce test time by half, then you may be able to put half the number of testers at the end of a line. Wireless devices, in particular, are often expensive and time-consuming to test. Many cellular phones are still tested with an inefficient method called 'call-processing.' In this approach, a device called a one-box tester is used to actually simulate a phone call to the device under test. Bringing a phone up into a call is slow and is unnecessary to test if the device is correctly assembled. This would be like testing a television by watching a movie on it, instead of simply sending it a test pattern and verifying the result. More and more cellular handset manufacturers are moving to a software-defined test system that instead tests the physical layer signal of the device and uses signal processing in software to perform the necessary tests to verify each type of wireless standard. This technique is often two to five times faster than call-processing, which results in huge savings for the manufacturer.

Another example of achieving cost savings with a modular, software-defined approach is to use the flexibility of software to reconfigure a system to test many different types of devices. Another challenge in wireless test is that many devices have multiple wireless standards. My beloved iPhone, for example, now has five radios! Often, these different standards have required different instruments with their own vendor-defined measurement routines. A software-defined system can be reconfigured to test each standard with the same hardware. And when standards inevitably change and evolve, a software-defined system is in a much better position to be able to react to these changes.

A final example is in semiconductor ATE. Many semiconductor devices are tested on so-called 'big iron' testers. These have the sophisticated digital infrastructure and pin-electronics to test high-performance semiconductors such as processors and SOCs. For simpler devices with low target prices, such as a MEMs sensor or an RFID, however, these testers may be overkill. Because they have the infrastructure to support high performance, it is difficult to scale them to these simpler requirements. Modular, open systems such as PXI, though, have a very low entry cost and can be configured with only the minimum required capability, which results in lower capital expenditure.

So, in these turbulent economic times, it will be up to test engineers to innovate using the latest technology to meet the challenges of testing more with less. And those companies and individuals that do this the best will be able to come out of this difficult time stronger than before and ready to take advantage of new opportunities as conditions improve.

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20 December 2008

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