Autotestcon Day 2: PXI on the rise

-September 23, 2013

In my first report from Autotestcon, I focused on instrument vendors who offer products based on large format modular standards like VXI or the emerging AXIe. Many of these also offer PXI, arguably the largest volume of all the standards. Today I’m focusing on vendors who offer PXI as their primary, or only, modular standard.

The day started with a panel discussion about modular instrumentation. I was honored to be the first speaker, and to give an overview and outlook. The Cliff Notes version of my talk is simple: Looking at 2012 financial statements, modular instruments outgrew their traditional counterparts by 15 to 20 points. This indicates that the shift to modular is accelerating. While only 15% of the entire automation marketplace, modular instruments are now knocking on the door of RF (radio frequency) applications, the largest macro segment in the test and measurement industry. Big RF investments from National Instruments, Agilent, Aeroflex, and ZTEC are producing innovations that make the shift to modular even more compelling.  As the market shifts to modular, it is in no single vendor’s interest to slow the investment, as that allows the others to take market share in a segment where ownership is up for grabs. Therefore, RF is the tipping point for the entire automated test industry.

At the end of my talk, I pointed out that this disruption affects not just RF, but other instrument categories, software, semiconductor test, and business models. This last aspect, differing business models, was on display from PXI vendors at Autotestcon. Some had the traditional product business model, some were focused on solutions, and some were focused on niches enabled by the shift to modular.

My first stop was National Instruments. In my recent report from NI Week, I wrote that NI was the quintessential platform play. They marry their key software platform, LabView, to a small list of modular hardware platforms: PXI, CompactDAQ, and CompactRIO. From this they are able to address a broad width of applications.  However, they tailor products and features for the various target segments. A good example of this is their recently introduced PXI embedded controller with a removable hard drive, the NI PXIe-8135. This seems like a minor feature, but it is critical for some mil/aero applications where sensitive information is loaded or recorded on the disk drive. Making non-volatile memory removable allows the otherwise standard controller to address these applications.

While at the NI booth, I was able to see a demonstration from Radx Technologies. They are a recently founded start-up, focusing on delivering DSP (digital signal processing) IP to test system integrators.  In particular, they were demonstrating custom signal processing algorithms downloaded onto the FPGAs embedded within the NI PXI VST (vector signal transceiver). Readers can read more about the trend of FPGA customization in a recent blog I wrote here. In this case, Radx demonstrated extremely fast signal analysis of a DOCSYS cable TV system. They also showed very fast update rates of simultaneous test instruments running on the same host controller using LabView. This is a good example of a vendor with an alternative business model of delivering unique IP to the test market.

Next I wandered to the Pickering Interfaces booth, and spoke with their CEO, Keith Moore. Pickering has a single focus on switching solutions, and offers PXI and LXI switching solutions. They manufacture many of their own relays, which they consider a competitive advantage. Keith told me that their business has seen a lot of growth this year, a good note while many vendors are stating mixed results. Pickering had just won a contract at Hill Air Force Base, supplying high-density PXI matrix switching to the PATS-70 program for testing the A-10 aircraft. They also announced several new high power switching modules for PXI.

Next was Marvin Test Solutions. Unfamiliar with Marvin? Think Geotest. Geotest recently changed their name to Marvin Test Solutions to signify their alignment with the parent corporation, Marvin Group. Senior Editor Janine Love recently interviewed Marvin Test Solutions CEO Steve Sargeant. I met with Senior Marketing Product Manager Mike Dewey, who also noted the last two words of the new name: Test Solutions. This notes the shift Marvin is making to more complete solutions.  Mike showed me a number of mil/aero test systems, packaged differently but all based on a common PXI architecture of 3U and 6U height modules. In most cases, the chassis was embedded deep inside a rugged package and invisible. I was intrigued by their recent entry into semiconductor test with the TS-900. One unique application they have found some traction on was counterfeit part detection. Here the IV (current/voltage) curve of a semiconductor I/O pin acts as a virtual fingerprint to identify different manufacturers, including original manufacturers from the clones. Very clever.

Aeroflex was my next stop. Like Marvin, they also build complete solutions on a PXI platform, but with a particular RF focus. A good example is the 7215 automated test set, aimed at production and depot testing of military and software defined radios.  They also announced a handheld tester, the 3515B, for portable radio test.  It is interesting to see even handheld touchscreen testers being based on PXI.

I walked nearby to the OpenATE booth. They are focused on low cost semiconductor test, and I previously reported on their 16-pin and 32-pin modules. They recently announced the QSPI module, supporting of the popular SPI bus found on many ICs.  

Next was Adlink. Adlink has been a supplier of PXI, PCIe, and cPCI modules for some time, focused on test and measurement as well as data acquisition.  They had just announced their PXIe-9529, a PXI Express dynamic signal analysis module.  This is clearly aimed at large NVH (noise, vibration, and harshness) applications, as each module contains 8 channels of 192Ks/s 24-bit acquisition.  Since they can be tightly synchronized, up to 136 channels can be deployed in a single PXI mainframe.

The final PXI vendor I spoke with was Chroma ATE. While most readers will recognize Chroma as a power supply vendor, and power supplies are not common in the PXI architecture due to power and cooling limitations, Chroma does indeed have a PXI portfolio. Chroma told me that they often configure PXI SMUs together, or the 36010 Pin Electronics Module. It’s another example of niche semiconductor applications moving to PXI.

While PXI was very popular, there were also proprietary buses present at Autotestcon. One such architecture came from United Electronic Industries. UEI offers a small form factor modular platform called the PowerDNA family. The small size is inherently rugged, and the entire platform claims operation from -40 degrees to +85 degrees Celsius. It is a versatile form factor that allows packaging into cubes or racks.  

Finally, I wanted to mention some clever technology solutions from EasternOptx. They’ve created a range simulator through use of fiber optics. Essentially, a customer drives an E/O (electrical to optical) modulator with their signal. Once in the optical domain, varying lengths of optical fiber are inserted, and summed, to create a final signal that duplicates what would happen on a real environment. This is converted back to the electrical domain. One advantage is that the transformation is protocol agnostic, so secured communications may be tested without the tester needing knowledge of the security algorithms. Eastern Optx recently added the Series 5000 doppler generator, which simulates the frequency shifts one would find in a moving target. Read an interview with Jerry Lomurno, president of Eastern OptX, here.

Another Autotestcon is in the books. These two days of reporting act as a survey of the investments into PXI, VXI, and AXIe, along with some custom approaches. While the models and focus of the vendors vary, they are all leveraging their platform investments to meet the needs of their chosen targets. This shows open modular standards can even aid internal development efficiency.

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