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Trimming down automated test rack size

Posted: 28 Jan 2014 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:test equipment? commercial off-the-shelf? National Instruments? PXI? serialiser-deserialiser?

I previously worked for a company where we developed custom test hardware for every new program or project. Don't get me wrong, some of the stuff being built was very complex. By that, I don't mean semiconductors, but boxes with three or four 128-pin connectors that were sourcing huge data rates.

The test equipment effort for these programs was huge, sometimes as big as the rest of the program combined. That actually makes sense, if you think about it, because the test equipment needs to be at least as good as whatever you're testing. It always sort of boggled my mind to see something the size of a breadbox cabled up to, perhaps, many racks of equipmenteach piece doing something specialised. Seriously, imagine four eight-foot-tall racks to test something!

In some cases, I knew those huge racks of test equipment could be replaced with a PC and a few instrument boards, so I tried pitching my thoughts for a new way of doing test. This involved something along the lines of a relatively small box with an Ethernet/USB interface to which we could then attach "personality modules." We could then reprogram the box to deliver the timing and UUT (unit under test) inputs we needed, and then acquire test data we needed for later analysis.

By using COTS (commercial off-the-shelf) computers and these little boxes, we could maybe save time, money, and scheduleprimarily by standardising a set of interfaces. Yes, I realise I am over-simplifying somethere is still a lot of STE (specialised test equipment) that would require its own test equipment, such as RF generators. But it seems to me that this could really be a boon, no matter your industry.

I was told several times that developing a new test platform seemed like a good idea. But, we all know that nobody wants to spend his or her own money for such projects. (Let customers pay for it.) R&D money, you probably hear, should be used for new technologies that will somehow get the company ahead in the future, right? The problem with this whole line of thought, though, is that after building a hunk of STE, the customer owns it. Another big problem is that the people who are working the program just keeping doing things the same old way. Why? Because "it works."

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Figure 1: A PXI chassis with modular instruments can replace some test racks that use box instruments, reducing rack size and footprint.

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