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Look back, then peek into the future of test

Posted: 16 May 2007 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:programming interface? user-defined models? software-defined tests? vendor-defined models?

Nair: "This is what we do: user-defined systems for software-defined tests."

Since its inception in 1976, National Instruments Corp. has been a significant force in the test industry. "We started as a company that aimed to help engineers and scientists interface with measurement devices," said Chandran Nair, NI's managing director for Southeast Asia. "In those days, there were all these standalone boxes, and it was quite expensive to interface automatically with instruments because they had to have computing solutions from Sun Microsystems and Silicon Graphics, which were a bit pricey then."

With the advent of PCs and Macs, and the resulting affordability of basic computing, NI built tools such as the GPIB product line to help interface with instruments. "Then in the mid-80s, we came out with the programming interface LabVIEW," Nair said.

LabVIEW offered a fresh approach to programming with graphical development that was similar to flowcharting. It helped engineers and scientists in various industries in quickly producing a wider range of applications. Two decades after it was first introduced, LabVIEW has evolved from a desktop instrument control and data acquisition tool into an integrated design, control and test platform for desktop, industrial, embedded and handheld applications.

"Interfacing was just the first half of what LabVIEW is," stressed Nair. "What it really did was start the concept of user-defined systems. What that meant was that it gave prominence to software. Yes, you have the hardware, which has all these capabilitiesbut if the user defines the system, they can make full use of those capabilities."

Responding to market
"In vendor-defined systems, the vendor gives you a box, which you don't have access to. When the vendor says this is what the box does, you buy it. And if you want something else, the vendor gives you another box," Nair described.

The concept of user-defined solutions, said Nair, is what NI brought to the market 20 years ago.

So what is the advantage of users defining a system?

"Let's take something very common in almost all products that you find these daysfrom airconditioning units to cars to toysRF," explained Nair. "When you think about RF test, you conclude that it is expensive. But when you think about the front block, the measurement block, all that is standardwhether it is GSM, or whether you are testing a remote control on a car, or whether you are doing Bluetooth testingyou realize that the hardware is actually common."

The traditional vendor-defined system setup, according to Nair, made testing expensive. "For instance, if you wanted to do GSM testing, you had to buy this box. If you needed something for CDMA, you had to buy another box. And for cellphones that had AM/FM and Bluetooth, you needed to buy yet another box. And each box cost $40,000 to $100,000," he said.

"To test a phone that has all these things, you need equipment that costs up to $200,000 to $300,000," stressed Nair.

Explosive growth
However, in a user-defined model, "You have this hardware that can do a lot of things," explained Nair. "Then you define it in software."

Such a concept, according to Nair, is gaining a strong foothold so that "we are seeing explosive growth in software-defined tests."

"Software-defined test is becoming very mainstream because companies see value in it," remarked Nair. "And they see value in other issues, too. They can force vendor-defined instrumentation companies to reduce their costs. As customers, we now have a choice."

Nair asked: "Do you want to compete? Do you want to lower the cost of test? Or do you want to keep increasing the cost of test?"

Product costs have to come down because, according to Nair, "a consumer will not pay $200 to $250 for a phone or more than $500 to $600 for a TV. Even though expensive TVs cost $2,000 to $3,000, every year or every six months, prices keep falling. And if the price of test equipment keeps on increasing, this becomes unviable."

The solution: user-defined systems for software-defined test. And this is important for customers, "because they have one common platform that goes all the way from the design phase to the deployment phase. This increases productivity tremendously," said Nair.

Addressing many
Tracing its roots in the test and measurement sector, NI now finds itself in the embedded arena. "Because we serve so many industries, from consumer electronics to communications engineering, we do a lot of multiprotocol testing," This means having the same hardware platform, but using one software-designed test platform to do all these thingsCDMA, GSM, Edge, DAB and DVB."

NI does a lot of software-designed testing in the RF area. "We also serve the military in some areas of RF testing. In CE, we are very strong in baseband measurement and RF measurement, from DVDs to TVs to simple electronics," he said.

In the automotive domain, NI is strong in two frontsautomotive electronics testing and engine control units. The company is also involved in the engine-testing side for processes such as vibration monitoring, control prototype and precision measurement.

Nair notes that there are more and more companies using embedded technologies to manufacture their machines.

As NI moves deeper into the embedded space, does it feel competition from EDA companies? "Not at all," said Nair. EDA companies, he continued, are seen as friends because they complement each other.

"Engineers have these great EDA tools. But they see us as a company that has great software exposure and knowledge, and has the hardware tools to help bridge the gap."

"For example, in designing a circuit, 90 percent or more of the electronics design is done in the computer. Then the design is simulated. But unless you are a very experienced engineer, the prototype is not going to behave exactly as simulated, right? In the real world, it should come down to the prototype."

According to Nair, engineers see great benefits in using measurement hardware and software that can directly connect with the prototype and compare with the design simulation. "It bridges the gap," he pointed out.

- Celeste dela Torre
EE Times-Asia

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