Semiconductor Test: An application for modular instruments?

-July 10, 2012

Last week I wrote about the battle for market share in the test and measurement industry (see Battle of the Titans).   In that article I reprinted the Frost and Sullivan rankings, courtesy of Jessy Cavazos:

  • $3.4B  Danaher (Tektronix, Keithley, and Fluke brands)
  • $3.3B  Agilent Technologies
  • $1.4B  Teradyne
  • $1.3B  Advantest
  • $1.0B  National Instruments

I observed that if modular instrumentation becomes more widely adopted, as it is on track to do, the industry will face an architectural disruption and this scorecard could become scrambled.

Astute readers will observe that two of the companies, Teradyne and Advantest, are the giants of semiconductor test. We know that there is a transition occurring from traditional instrumentation to modular, but what about semiconductor test?

For the record, I don’t see PXI or AXIe replacing the big iron testers that are at the heart of semiconductor test.  These are purpose-built testers that excel at production testing of SoC (System on a Chip) devices and other large digital ICs. But that doesn’t mean they won’t nibble at the edges, particularly for mixed signal devices or in R&D.

Take AXIe, for example. Agilent is deploying the standard for logic and protocol analysis- largely aimed at semiconductor validation. Aeroflex and TEv have deployed the standard for device characterization and mixed signal testing.

Mixed signal test is the sweet spot for these open modular standards, particularly PXI. The rich and quickly growing analog and RF capabilities in a small, fast modular format make it an ideal platform for these devices. The Semiconductor Test Suite from National Instruments brings precision SMUs, Digital, and RF to the market. Geotest is also focusing its products at the semiconductor marketplace, and recently added interfaces for automated probes and handlers.  Indeed, any PXI instrument could be deployed in such a system.

So with modular instrumentation’s growing footprint in mixed signal R&D and manufacturing, what should the big iron ATE vendors do?  What I would expect, but haven’t seen, is for the ATE vendors to adopt PXI and AXIe as an option to their current testers.  It’s a great way to add focused measurements while retaining the value delivered by their dense digital and analog pin cards.

So here’s my question to the readers. Are you testing mixed signal semiconductors? If so, what type of equipment are you using in R&D, or in manufacturing?  Finally, where do you think the industry should head to address mixed signal testing?

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