Innovation is the result of successful people, process, and technology changes that enable a new level of productivity and performance. Most electronics companies can benefit from such changes in their test and measurement systems today. The use of rack-and-stack, vendor-defined instruments has remained relatively unchanged for more than three decades. Hence, opportunities for innovative change are abundant.

Improvements in test reuse, increased throughput, and cost reduction can yield significant benefits such as faster time-to-market for new product releases, lower capital and operating expenses, and improved product margins. Most test-related savings translate directly to the bottom line and improve the overall financial health of your company and the industry. These strategic advantages and improved company profitability are invaluable benefits for most companies during these times.

Technology innovation is most often the first area of change test engineers and managers consider, and rightfully so, since it typically translates to major test system improvements and cost savings. Yet it may not yield maximum benefits by itself. In fact, major test innovations often lie in waiting within your test organization with respect to people and process changes. Hence, innovation in your company’s approach to test can likely be found in a combination of people, process, and technology changes.

Align Your Team

Innovative personnel changes are most often found in maximizing the strengths, both technical and personal, within your organization. While change can be a dirty six-letter word, realigning the strengths of test engineers and managers can produce significant results with the same headcount—which is always a plus during budget and hiring freezes. It’s also helpful to take advantage of the production slowdown during a tough economy to make adjustments so you’re prepared for the upturn.

The first step to personnel realignment is to examine the technical and personal traits you will need in each position within your revamped test organization. Be sure to also consider the process and technology changes you would like to successfully implement when considering the traits needed for each role.

A quick survey of your personnel will yield a variety of skills. Some will have years of invaluable experience. Some will have a natural propensity for learning and applying new technologies. Some will prefer to follow a consistent process that they already know. And, some may be fresh out of school but willing to put in the time to make their project successful and on time.

By identifying the needs of each role on your team independently of analyzing the skills of each person on your staff, you can more easily pair the right person for each role. It also helps you discuss your proposed changes with the members of your team with the confidence of knowing they will have the best opportunity for success in their new roles because it aligns with their inherent strengths. Always remember to allocate the proper time to discuss each change individually with the affected members of your team to ensure they understand the reason for the changes and see their opportunity for career growth in the new role.

Identify Process Improvements

Major opportunities reside in improved processes. Each organization has a unique set of processes for ensuring the consistent test coverage and quality of its products. Many engineers would agree that processes are needed but often inefficient in some areas. It’s always good to improve processes as they evolve. However, incremental changes aren’t likely to yield the significant benefits you’re seeking.

One key process area for significant improvement is collaboration between design and production test. This proposed process change involves minimizing the amount of “throw it over the wall” test system design. Many companies have separate validation and production test teams with minimal processes to ensure communication and collaboration between the two groups from the initial product design kickoff to shipment of finished goods.

Companies with regular collaboration and negotiation checkpoints between these groups during their design process have achieved major improvements, including faster time-to-market, improved test reuse, optimized test coverage, increased throughput, and lower test system costs. While most engineers resent additional processes, this one is often embraced as it leads to better communication and less finger pointing. Remember, it takes the right strengths and traits for each individual on these teams who will be working together to ensure effective communication and collaboration.

Guarantee Your Technology Adapts

The most significant opportunity for innovation in test can often be found in the technology and architecture of your automated test systems. The multi-decade approach of stacking vendor-defined box instruments in a rack for automated testing is reaching its limit with regards to return on investment. New software-enabled electronic devices demand more flexible instrumentation that can adapt to their changing test needs. The cost, size, and power consumption of traditional automated test systems are also becoming larger barriers to scalable growth for many electronics companies with varying test needs between validation and production environments.

Fortunately, new PC and embedded technologies such as graphical system level programming, PCI Express, multicore processors, FPGAs, faster analog-to-digital converters, and low-cost data storage solutions are providing more options to help you increase the flexibility and throughput of your automated test systems while lowering your overall cost of test.

With software-defined instrumentation, emphasis shifts from a box instrument consisting of a fixed set of hardware-defined measurements to a modular, software-defined measurement system. This allows you to specify the exact measurement and analysis functions you need for each device under test and avoid paying for measurement functionality that you don’t need.

Significant throughput gains are achieved as well via graphical programming techniques for multicore host processing, user-defined FPGA inline processing, and autoschedule parallel test capabilities for testing multiple devices in parallel with the same test system. PXI is the most popular modular instrumentation platform for implementing a software-defined test system. In fact, the PXI Systems Alliance predicts more than 100,000 PXI-based systems will be deployed this decade (2000-2009).

Embrace Change

Change can have a significant positive impact. Regardless of which method you choose, test needs innovation, and innovation requires change. With the proper focus and strategy, you can quickly transition test from a necessary evil to a strategic advantage.