2013 Modular Instrument Predictions

-February 01, 2013

Yes, it’s that time of the year when pundits place their bets on what will be the key events in each of their industries. I made 10 predictions about modular instruments for 2012, and graded myself recently as getting 7 out of 10 correct.  (Alternative observation: that means 3 predictions not-so-correct)

So, this is hard work.  The test and measurement industry changes at a conservative rate, but it is currently experiencing a particularly volatile time within automated test. Specifically, open system modular instruments (VXI, PXI, or AXIe) have gained rapid acceptance, and are poised to change the industry.  

Nevertheless, it’s time to put pencils down and make the predictions.  Frequent readers of Outside the Box know my fondness for rock and roll.  Reflecting on the trends, I chose seven songs that reflect my predictions for modular instruments in 2013:

1. Video Killed the Radio Star – The Buggles  Traditional “box” instrumentation has long been the star of RF (radio frequency) measurements.  But as new communication standards deliver video bandwidths over multiple MIMO (Multiple In, Multiple Out) channels, expect modular instruments to gain in 2013.  Why? Well first of all, the applications are well suited to modular solutions. MIMO technology is fundamentally a multi-channel application, a perfect match to modular. Couple with that the increased bandwidths that make PCI Express an ideal instrument backplane.  Finally, modular vendors from A to Z (Aeroflex, Agilent, National Instruments, and ZTEC, to name a few) are introducing compelling products that simply have no equivalents in traditional form factors. These products will flip more applications and customers to modular, which drives more vendors to enter the market, and so on.  This virtuous cycle will make RF the fastest growing application segment for modular in 2013, and PXI will be the platform that delivers the growth.

2. I Can See For Miles – The Who  Need more resolution? Powerful data converters (Analog to Digital, Digital to Analog) will be introduced in modular formats coupled with high performance FPGA processing on-board. It is interesting to see high-resolution oscilloscopes recently announced that deploy 12-bit converters. But here is the dilemma.  As resolution increases, the limit of what the human eye can see is reached, so a pure bench instrument paradigm is limited. And aren’t high definition displays essentially 10 bits of vertical resolution anyway? The only way to exploit this increased vertical resolution is through an embedded or external processor that is giving insight through some other calculated attribute or zooming. Once an application needs a processor anyway, why not get all the other advantages of modular instruments?  Expect to see breakthrough digitizers and AWGs introduced this year in modular form factors, all coupled with high performance FPGAs.

3. I Can’t Drive 55 – Sammy Hagar  While modular brings all sorts of size, scalability and cost benefits- it is modular’s blazing speed that will delight the customers this year. Like Sammy Hagar, test departments can’t drive at 55 any more either.  Whether in design validation or manufacturing, modular systems can use their unique system architecture of direct memory access, on board FPGAs, and high-speed backplanes to bring unmatched throughput to the marketplace.  Keep an eye out for amazing speed breakthroughs from the class of 2013.  

4. Radar Love – Golden Earring  Military applications are going modular. Look at a radar system, and it is already modular through VME processors, modular digitizers, and phased array antennas. Why shouldn’t the test equipment be modular too? It will be. Radar is essentially MIMO on steroids.  While Mil/Aero spending may be depressed due to budget constraints this coming year, you should expect to see a continued shift to VXI, PXI and AXIe formats by the armed services and the vendors that serve them. They are looking for a few good architectures, and open system modular fits the bill.

5. She Blinded Me by Science – Thomas Dolby  Big Physics. Big Science. Modular is a direct hit. Walk through CERN and you may not see any Higgs Bosons for yourself, they are detected through advanced mathematics and processing, but you will see plenty of modular instrumentation. VXI, PXI, cPCI… and my prediction this year is AXIe as well. I named one physics lab that built AXIe in my 2012 review, but I am predicting many more in the future.  Regardless of the particular modular format, big science works well with the automation, speed, and size reduction benefits of modular instrumentation.

6. Castles Made of Sand – Jimi Hendrix
  Sand = Silicon. And the largest castles in the industry are the big iron testers.  While dedicated ATE from the likes of Teradyne, Advantest, and Verigy will always be optimal for SOC testing, look at the adjacent segments such as design validation, packaged modules, and mixed signal devices. Users in these segments have always struggled between rack and stack instrumentation and dedicated ATE. But modular instrumentation brings the best of both- the speed and density of ATE with the parametric measurement performance once only found in traditional box instruments. Expect to see modular instruments make inroads into semiconductor characterization and test in 2013.

And now, my final prediction…

7. Break On Through To The Other Side – The Doors  This is the overall macro trend- modular instrumentation will again deliver >10-point growth over traditional instruments, driven by the principles of this simple game theory equation:

Nash Equilibriums + Porter’s 5 forces + Adjacent Segments = Disruptive Change

Essentially, modular instrumentation will grow quicker than the market as a whole in 2013 by expanding its footprint into new segments, some of those named above. But here is where the game theory comes in.  As these new segments switch to PXI or AXIe, competitors are incented to deliver even more modular products. These switch even more applications to modular, forming a new equilibrium as modular products march across the industry, application by application.  Eventually, modular instruments will become the dominant automation platform for the industry.  Expect to see more evidence of this disruptive shift to modular in 2013.

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