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Trending: Could test equipment be the prototype itself?

05 Apr 2016  | Larry Desjardin

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Two "trend" reports by National Instruments, NI Trend Watch 2016 and Automated Test Outlook 2016, looked at key trends in our industry this year. I discussed these trends with National Instruments' John Graf (VP of Corporate Marketing) and Luke Schreier (Director of Automated Test Marketing) during a recent interview. Earlier this month, I reported on one of the identified trends, the testing of smart devices, asking whether functional testers could be standardised. Now I'm writing about another.

One of the identified trends in NI Trend Watch 2016 was Prototyping takes 5G from concept to reality. NI advocates a platform-based approach to prototyping to accelerate time to market for next generation wireless communications 5G systems. The concept is that a platform that can be easily customised can be changed easily to try different techniques, such as frequency bands, modulation techniques, and number of antennas. I've simplified the choices greatly as 5G is very complicated with a near infinite number of architectural choices.

But here is the key point about this particular trend: NI is not talking about using test equipment merely as a way to test prototypes, NI is talking about test equipment being the prototype itself. If this sounds familiar to Test Cafe readers, it should. Last summer this column had a first in the industry comprehensive look at the inside of the Nokia/NI 5G system. The actual 5G prototype was based on PXI chassis, modules, and NI software, commonly considered to be "test equipment."

Nokia Rx head on 50dpi

Figure 1: The image above shows the prototype of the Nokia 5G receiver unveiled last year at NIWeek. It is based on NI PXI instrumentation, FPGA, and controller modules, customised by LabView FPGA.

Before we jump into why this is feasible, let's talk about challenges, and why traditional test equipment is ill suited for the task. Test equipment can emulate the signals a certain DUT (Device Under Test) may have, but it is difficult for traditional equipment to emulate the real-time behaviour. Imagine a rack of equipment being controlled by LAN from a test controller as an example. There are huge latencies between the test controller and the equipment, the equipment is not very flexible, parallel processing is difficult, and real-time control is essentially impossible. This is fundamentally a different architecture from an actual device where fast low-latency busses interface with FPGAs and signal processors in real-time, generating and analysing multi-element IQ streams, all in parallel to the higher protocol layers.

That may be a different architecture from traditional test equipment, but it is remarkably similar to PXI (or AXIe for that matter). PXI can host an arbitrary number of processor or FPGA boards, all connected together by the fast low-latency PCIe bus. In NI's case, they use a high level language (LabView) to quickly define the function of the FPGA cards. I described this approach last year in a column entitled All of NIWeek can be reduced to one diagram. Indeed, this same approach was also used in Japan to develop a 3D medical imaging system. Not a test system, the actual imaging system itself!

Which brings me to the title of this column, "Could prototyping expand the test and measurement market?" I've written about modular instruments in these pages for some time. However, modular instrumentation has largely been a substitution play. That is, it replaces traditional instrumentation due to its size, speed, flexibility, and/or cost. Strictly speaking, it isn't expanding the market, just transforming it. But prototyping actually increases the market size. It's a new application that was previously done through other methods.

So, can prototyping expand the test and measurement market? Yes. The only question is "how much?" NI is betting that it's significant.

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