Modular instrument highlights of 2013 set scene for 2014

January 02, 2014 // By Larry Desjardin , from the EDN “Test Cafe”
As your friendly barista of Test Cafe, let me brew you an espresso as we look back on the year 2013. Here at Test Cafe, we only serve espresso, and certainly nothing decaf. Like the modular test systems we report on, we feel the need for speed. The automated test industry is going through a transformation to modular instrument systems. To keep up with the changes, Test Cafe readers drink their espressos straight, and in high quantities.

So, where are we with modular instrument adoption, as we review 2013? Though I’ll have to do final calculations after the beginning of the year, it appears that modular systems have again outgrown traditional instruments by double-digit amounts . Part of this is due to 2013 being a soft year for the industry overall, so this wasn’t a particular large hurdle. However, the relative growth rate of modular instrumentation shows that PXI and AXIe continue to take share from their traditional counterparts.

If there is a one-word reason for modular growth in 2013, it is speed. Test system speed is driving modular adoption this year. As I reported back in February 2012, PCI Express (the basic fabric behind PXI and AXIe) is like espresso for test systems . Test speed leads to faster time to market and fewer testers needed in manufacturing. That means more revenue and lower test costs respectively. While the mil/aero segment in the 1990s was the first adopter of modular systems, it is now the commercial electronic sector leading the charge, and specifically RF component and system vendors.

For evidence, look no further than National Instrument’s PXI VST (Vector Signal Transceiver).  Enhanced early this year with baseband I/O, NI reported that the VST launch was the company’s most successful hardware product launch ever. And that’s a very long time. A big part of this is due to test speed. With the VST, NI didn’t just settle for the inherent speed of PXI. As reported by Test Cafe from NI Week , NI’s offering of FPGA customization through LabVIEW RIO followed with PXImc for floating point acceleration enabled Hittite Microwave to achieve a 60x test speed improvement.

2013 also saw Agilent complete its initial PXI RF salvo with the introduction of its PXI vector signal analyzer . Test Cafe reported on the introduction from Autotestcon, where we described the software and hardware suites that deliver its