Each year, National Instruments releases its Automated Test Outlook (ATO). The ATO, derived from extensive research, close contact with customers and suppliers, and a customer advisory board, identifies key trends in test automation. Granted, one may see some of these trends as a bit self-serving on NI’s part. However, in reality, all of them are justifiable in that they reflect what many organizations are facing in terms of staying competitive with their test equipment and strategies.
Thus, NI’s predicted trends are useful as measuring sticks with which to gauge your organization’s readiness for the challenges of automated test over the next five to seven years. Let’s walk through five key trends that NI believes will drive those challenges; think in terms of how your test strategy and philosophy stacks up.
1. Optimizing test organizations: Everyone knows that finding design flaws and bugs is exponentially more costly the deeper you get in your design cycle. Many OEMs would love to emulate Apple’s successes but few would want to have a widely publicized issue such as the antenna problems in the iPhone 4. It’s safe to assume that Apple itself took away some lessons about test from that debacle.
OEMs must look at test as something more than a cost center. Thus, the trend is to optimize the test organization and turn it into a competitive advantage. This does not happen overnight, but rather through a progression of refinements, learning how to reuse elements of the test process.
2. Measurements and simulation in the design flow: Solid concurrency of design and test has been a holy grail for decades. What many labs are working toward is the ability to test subsystems before integration into the overall system. NI’s belief is that software is the vehicle by which test will be brought upstream into the earlier stages of the design flow. It will also enable the opposite scenario, wherein test software will drive the design environment.
Increasingly, this is by means of modern EDA software’s connectivity between the design environment and test software. This connectivity enables EDA software environments to drive measurement software, and also enables measurement automation environments to automate the EDA design environment.
Connected EDA and test software improves the design process through richer measurements. One growing trend is to use a common tool chain from design through test—a trend that ultimately enables engineers to introduce measurements into the design flow earlier. A second trend is using behavioral models from EDA tools to speed up development of test software for product validation and manufacturing. The key here is to use a virtual prototype as the DUT when writing that code.
3. PCI Express external interfaces: PCI Express (PCIe) has slowly, but surely, become the most pervasive bus on earth. The PCI-SIG maintains that there are now 27 billion installed PCIe lanes. In 2010, the release of the PCIe 3.0 spec brought bidirectional data transfers at 16 GB/s per direction, and with extremely low latency to boot.
We’re all accustomed to PCIe being used as an internal bus, but back in 2007, the PCI-SIG announced support for an external implementation of PCIe called cabled PCIe. It’s already being used in modular instrumentation platforms such as PXI. So far, there’s formal support only for copper, but smart minds are already extending this interface to fiber cables.
Now, Thunderbolt interfaces (called LightPeak by Intel), which combine PCIe and the DisplayPort video protocol in a single copper or fiber cable, are already standard on all Apple MacBooks. Before very long, we will see PCs on the market with Thunderbolt as well.
That’s why you can expect Thunderbolt to become the interface of choice for linking together automated test environments. There is already a standard in place (the PXI MultiComputing (PXImc) spec, released by the PXI Systems Alliance (PXISA) in November 2009) to get around the problems of connecting disparate PCIe domains with PCIe non-transparent bridges (NTBs).
4. Proliferation of mobile devices : The proliferation of smart phones and tablets is going to influence how we interface with test systems. The trend is toward using these smart, portable devices to monitor and control our automated test systems.
A big question is how this will be used to best effect. Which technologies will come into play and how do we design such control schemes for long-term longevity? Moreover, what is the best way to build the control applications? Native apps, like on your iPhones, iPads, or Android devices, are the way to go for slick interfaces. However, they leave you beholden to the device’s hardware and its OEM’s rules. There are also portability issues from one OS to another.
A better way might be web-based services, using an API for transfers, or perhaps XML, rather than standard HTTP. Yet, there are tradeoffs here as well in terms of security, not to mention that native apps are generally going to look and feel better.
5. Portable measurement algorithms : OEMs of automated test hardware have enjoyed the flood of progress in microprocessor technology. However, FPGAs have come a long way in terms of their capabilities. FPGAs allow the OEM to do deterministic, in-line processing and analysis of test data. The issue is how to take advantage of multiple processor implementations, whether a quad-core CPU, FPGA, GPU, or cloud services, without having to constantly rewrite test algorithms.
There are various ways to approach this problem of achieving heterogeneity in algorithms. One is using hardware description languages (HDLs) to abstract away the hardware differences. Another is to use high-level synthesis to speedily port algorithms to one hardware platform or another. NI believes that the ultimate answer may lie in hardware-agnostic models of computation.
These five trends, says NI’s ATO, are where automated test is heading. If you’re not thinking in terms of some of these trends and how they figure into the evolution of your test strategies and methodology, you may soon find yourself well behind the curve. Some competitor of yours could beat you to the punch, evolving into a happier world in which test becomes a true competitive advantage.