Sebastian Richter discusses how engineers are meeting the test & measurement challenges of today’s electronics landscape
Electronic engineers face increasingly complex challenges in design, development and test. Today’s industrial and economic technologies and trends create a strong demand for new electronic devices. This, in turn, means tough test and measurement requirement– and a much more collaborative and proactive approach. T&M providers offer their customers the know-how, education and resources to support these needs.
IoT, Industry 4.0 and green energy place new demands on test systems, and on engineers that use them. In parallel, fundamental changes in personal lifestyle - such as e-health, e-mobility, smart homes, smart cities and social media - pose further challenges for electronic devices that enable connectivity, mobility, and wearability. Devices today need more performance, power efficiency, robustness and the highest data rates.
Engineers have to get the best results from today’s increasingly sophisticated test and measurement solutions as well as classical lab equipment and handheld tools. For example, how do we efficiently trigger and decode low speed serial buses? Problem areas include analogue/digital design and testing, digital bus and interface standards, power electronics and the specific issues with IoT equipment. Whether for specific aspects of test instruments, or challenges with the testing particular devices and components, T&M providers are working alongside their customers to see them through the challenges.
Designing for analogue components test
Although design-for-Test (DfT) strategies are well-established for digital circuits, analogue and mixed signal circuits require new techniques and custom approaches to test and measurement. Densely populated circuit boards bring the added problem of accessing internal nodes via bed-of-nails fixtures. Functional and final tests need to be made at PCB level, necessitating new analogue measurement technology for in-production testing of modules.
When integrating T&M solutions into a production line, the investment on necessary fixtures and programs is often greater than that of test systems themselves. With this in mind, test solutions should support a variety of general production tests, including in-circuit and functional tests. As well as investing in test hardware, there needs to be additional know-how and technology for the application in hand, for example wireless communications. T&M partners are heavily involved in complete systems/projects right through to in-line production, and to provide the required support anywhere in the world.
Getting power systems right
Power components and systems represent a key differentiator in today’s electronic systems and the services they offer. When it comes to the requirements for design and debugging, T&M providers are a key resource for designers aiming to achieve the necessary excellent performance and compliance. Reliability and power efficiency, reduced size and weight, and compliance issues often lead to contradictory design challenges. For those working on embedded power, power conversion or motor drive electronics, excellent performance and compliance enabled by proper electronics test solutions will deliver the right information and get design to market faster.
Test engineers can work with their T&M provider to gain deeper insights into power system designs and pave the way for improvement and verification purposes. Faster switching times are achieved with advanced materials such as GaN and SiC and this can greatly improve power efficiency. However, they also increase and generate unwanted EMI problems, which can only be resolved by system verification methods for EMC analysis.
Power systems insights
Test solutions need the best data acquisition and visualization systems if they are to balance efficiency, performance and compliance with regulation specifications. Today, oscilloscopes with probes and analysis software offer the required high bandwidths, floating channels and very precise EMI debugging tools. T&M manufacturers can help designers use the resulting insights to achieve close to best performance in line with EMI limits.
Control loop analysis is crucial, but engineers find testing can be problematic or time-consuming. Every power supply has a feedback loop that monitors the output voltage or current and keeps it within required limits applied to control loop start-up, operational stability and load response. As well as confirming stability, power system designers need to characterise the power performance of the supply, whether designing a DC-DC converter for embedded designs or tailoring a reference design to requirements.
The latest oscilloscopes and probes offer unique features for this task, along with measurement tools to verify and debug power integrity and PDM impedance. T&M manufacturers provide extensive resources – such as tips and tricks to verify control loop stability. Technical notes, step-by-step guides, training and webinars are all available to explain key requirements - from EMI test for embedded power electronics designs, through power integrity testing, power electronics verification, to debugging and analysis of EMI problems during development.
Demanding data rates
As if analogue and mixed signal test were not taxing enough, high-speed digital designs face demands of their own. Faster data rates and increasingly compact form factors create new technical challenges on components as well as board-level and system-level designs. For example, the need for verification, debugging and compliance testing of high-speed digital designs makes signal and power integrity of fundamental importance. The complexities of higher integration, with varying signal and crosstalk scenarios demand thorough measurements to ensure proper system functionality, even under worst case conditions.
USB 3.0, DDR4 and other interfaces must operate at data rates over 5Gbps, necessitating advanced methods and tools for debugging digital designs and characterising PCB transmission lines, cables and connectors. Available test solutions provide powerful tools for system validation and debug of digital designs, such as signal and power integrity as well as protocol-level debugging.
A prime example is the system verification and debugging of USB interfaces. Higher data rates and faster charging speeds, not to mention the integration of Thunderbolt and DisplayPort technologies, are driving standardisation efforts in the USB Implementers Forum (USB-IF). Test and measurement manufacturers are working closely with USB-IF to provide powerful test solutions for interface testing, PCB, cable and connector testing, and power delivery testing. Test solutions help to efficiently verify and debug system level designs and get products to market faster.
Another case in point is the PCIe architecture at the heart of most computer designs. Here, the growing demand for speed is driving standardisation efforts in PCI-SIG and their adoption in data centres, PCs and embedded applications. As well as solutions for PCIe compliance testing, today’s test solutions help to efficiently verify and debug designs at the board and system level, including in the presence of other interfaces and wireless signals.
IoT in testing times
The internet of things (IoT) affects all industries and ultimately everyone's daily life, so the expectations regarding reliability, performance, quality and long-term availability are extremely high. Wireless connectivity is a critical success factor for IoT devices and network components. This is why testing underpins all phases of the product lifecycle, ensuring performance, reliability and fast time to market. T&M providers are helping electronics engineers to understand the relevant testing needs and setups and to perform all necessary tests and measurements to bring IoT applications to market as quickly as possible – all with the required quality and performance.
Power system design is especially vital to IoT and wearable devices, which must minimise power consumption to allow extended battery lifetime. They also need to address the daunting requirements of mobility, connectivity, highest data rates, robustness and power efficiency.
The customer’s quality of experience (QoE) with a mobile device is a major measure for manufacturers. Ensuring coexistence and interference-free operation of all integrated wireless standards is a challenge from the initial design to the production of mobile devices. Mobile device test and measurement solutions cover every aspect of cellular mobile radio, wireless connectivity and navigation standards – from R&D to conformance and production testing.
The bottom line
There are many complex challenges in design, development and test, but test engineers need not face them alone. From circuits and devices right up to complete systems and networks, T&M providers such Rohde & Schwarz support their hardware and software with the know-how, guidance, education and resources engineers need.
Sebastian Richter is with Rohde & Schwarz.