Does test equipment really need knobs and displays?

-October 15, 2013

Frequent readers of Test Cafe are familiar with my predictions regarding the “coming modular disruption”- that open modular standards such as PXI and AXIe will become the principal form factors for automated test.  This is driven by size, speed, and flexibility advantages over their traditional counterparts.

While I am convinced this disruption has reached the tipping point for automated systems, that is, any system where a computer is connected to one or more instruments, what about manual bench instruments?

Here the future is less than clear.  I’m certain that handheld instruments would retain their embedded displays due to portability and ease of use.  Hanging lighting fixtures from my garage ceiling yesterday, I was glad to reach for a Red Bull traditional handheld voltmeter to check for power.  I didn’t have an extra hand to hold my iPhone even if I could have the results shown via an app. That said, I find it interesting that Agilent Technologies has introduced two handheld products, a DMM and the FieldFox analyzer, that support remote displays to a tablet or phone.  Far from a gimmick, the short video of the FieldFox iOS app points at some great examples where separating the display from the instrument is actually an advantage for the user.  

The Agilent FieldFox analyzer is on the right, while the iOS app that acts as a remote front panel is on the left.  It appears to be an effective substitute for the real thing.  Could this be the future of all bench instrumentation?

And that gets to the focus of this column- why not adopt remote displays for all test equipment?

Here’s one big advantage.  There is no law of engineering that says that wherever your connectors are is exactly the location you want the display and front panel to be.  In fact, the opposite.  As speeds and frequency increase, you want your connectors close by the DUT (Device Under Test).  Ever see a logic analyzer tucked back in a lab bench with dozens of cables sprouting from it, enveloping the DUT?  Why would you want to force your knobs and displays to be in that rat’s nest?  Add in oscilloscopes and microwave equipment, and how exactly are you supposed to get everything close to the DUT, and at the same time with convenient displays for the user?

Ah, dear readers, you wouldn’t have to worry about it if the displays were remote.  Put your tablet wherever you wish.  Or remote the display to your laptop that is supporting some humungous monitor.  Why settle for the fixed sizes of displays offered by vendors when you can buy high resolution displays at your local electronic retailer larger than your entire lab bench if you wished?

Will engineers accept the remote display concept? Or are they wedded to physical knobs and dials that come from the Flash Gordon days?  For those that think that engineers will never change, I suggest looking at the smartphone industry.  It was a firm tenet of the industry that a smartphone needed a physical keyboard to be viable.  Steve Jobs proved otherwise, and now the entire smartphone metaphor has switched. 

Which brings me back to the modular disruption.  Given that modular solutions continue to take market share in automated applications, and noting that these faceless instruments could exploit the remote display technologies just as easily as traditional bench products, couldn’t these products compete with the traditional instruments for manual applications on the bench as well?  I reported earlier this year from Mobile World Congress about National Instrument’s Data Dashboard for LabView.  NI was showing a PXI-based 802.11ac measurement system being used manually from an iPad.  The ease of use and beauty of the display was impressive.

So, what do you think?  Are knobs and embedded displays essential features of bench instrumentation?  Or are they about to become anachronisms joining bell bottoms and smartphones with keys?  My thought: We are just one Steve Jobs away from a remarkable transformation.

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