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Test Suppliers Address Changing Needs

April 1, 2005 By: Barbara G. Goode, Sensors Sensors

Suppliers of test and measurement solutions are recognizing the needs of designers to develop more complex devices in less time for less cost.

Pointing to the example of cell phones, Michael Schneider of National Instruments (NI, www.ni.com) says, "Consumers expect to pay less over time for more features," although of course the trend extends well beyond the consumer market. So "up and to the right" is where NI is pushing functionality with its new developments, including the 7½-digit (26-bit) FlexDMM. Up, that is, on a graph where the vertical axis represents resolution, and to the right, where the horizontal axis represents frequency. The new multifunction device promises to allow accurate measurements from picoamps to kilovolts and features a 1.8 Msps isolated digitizer in addition to the DMM.

NI, of course, is all about virtual instrumentation, i.e., transferring operations from hardware to software to enable greater flexibility and easier upgrades. The company quotes Agilent president and CEO Bill Sullivan this past December as saying, "The movement to modular instrumentation with software-based configuration that customers can easily reconfigure and reuse is the future of test and measurement." NI predicts that these factors will drive virtual instrumentation in the future: high-speed data buses (such as PCI Express) and reconfigurable processing (represented by another new NI release: the Digital Filter Design Toolkit for LabVIEW).

By the way, Fortune recently named NI one of the "100 Best Companies to Work For" for the sixth year in a row. Wow!

Meanwhile, Keithley Instruments (www.keithley.com) is moving the test and measurement community down and to the right—i.e., where the vertical axis refers to price and the horizontal axis denotes power. Keithley says that its new 2600 System SourceMeters (the 2601 is single channel; the 2602 is dual channel) fill a gap between low-cost, low-power systems and high-power systems that are beyond the means of many operations. These, says Keithley, are half the cost, half the size, and twice as fast as previous and competing solutions. In fact, the 2600 systems promise to increase test throughput two to four times, reduce test development time by 50%–75%, and lower capital costs by around 50%. The units could also reduce the need for other capital equipment, says Keithley, by increasing the capacity of probers, for instance. And, importantly, the company says that these are the only modular, scalable pin-count instruments available. Keithley says its soon-to-be-patented SMU (source measurement unit, similar to a DMM for semiconductor applications) is at the heart of its ability to provide all this performance at such a low cost.

In recent years Keithley has moved its semiconductor measurement products beyond the materials research realm and across the range of IC development and production, including development, process integration, and volume fabrication for RF ICs and SOCs. And, Keithley is leveraging its expertise in sensitive DC measurements to MEMS on-wafer production test. The company says recent proprietary innovations are letting it solve the problems of multiple design iterations and low yield.

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