As technology gets miniaturized, testing and measurement methods also undergo transformation to keep up the pace of progress.
Quality, performance, and interoperability are among the important drivers in electronic design and testing today, with cost also being an important factor.
Interoperability is playing an increasingly important role, because more and more of the world’s products and solutions are connected in some way. So, they not only have to function properly themselves, they must be compatible with other elements of the systems in which they operate.
When we think of mission-critical applications, such as autonomous driving, it becomes clear how crucial it is for all hardware and software elements to interoperate properly. Helping to make this happen, often in new ways required by advancing technologies, is one of the core missions of the electronic measurement industry.
One new dimension of ensuring interoperability is generated by the higher frequencies and smaller geometries being used in electronic products such as mobile phones. We all know that billions of transistors are now packed into single silicon chips, but if you have ever seen the inside of a modern smartphone you can appreciate how many different individual chips and other components are packed inside what amounts to be a very small space.
While past testing of products like these relied on a probed or cabled connection to the device, new devices cannot afford the space penalty for connector or probe access, or the risk of errors caused by measurement parasitics (small disturbances to the circuit resulting from the measurement process itself). The test must instead be completed with over-the-air (OTA) methods, which means measuring contactlessly, using only the radiated energy from one or more antennas.
OTA has required the development of new measurement science—using specialized test chambers, calibration procedures, software analytics, and so on. It also couples into design and simulation, both for the devices and for the test equipment. Compared to OTA, old-school cabled measurement seems easy. But that is the nature of the industry—we keep innovating because we must stay ahead of what customers are doing if we want to contribute to accelerating their innovations.
On what could be seen as the opposite end of the spectrum from OTA is a trend called “software-on-software measurement”. While hardware continues to advance, a high proportion of the core capabilities, differentiated features and overall user experience of modern products is implemented via software. This software needs to be tested, for quality and performance, and again for interoperability and conformance to standards.
This is typically done with other software. Depending on the system, hardware is often involved. As with hardware, the software that is accomplishing the test must be “calibrated” or certified in some way so that it can trusted as a reference for judgments that may be made on the product being tested.
A good example is the hundreds of test scripts that must be run against a new mobile device to ensure it performs properly under the wide range of use cases it will encounter in a live network. The development and maintenance of this software has become every bit as important as the development of hardware IP streams such as custom application-specific integrated circuits (ASIC) and chipsets.
Quantum measurement needs and software
What other new technologies are on the horizon in the world of design and test? A subject that is often asked about is quantum computing and quantum engineering generally.
Quantum computing is clearly receiving much attention right now, with interest from technical, business and government players. And the idea of measurement is intrinsically connected to how we think about quantum behavior.
So, the industry is looking to serve the needs of quantum researchers and watching to see how things might develop in areas such as quantum sensing and quantum cryptography. Right now, these are very specialized technologies and it is not clear when or even whether they will yield the far-reaching benefits that have been envisioned. One thing we know for sure, is that scientific progress and measurement advances often go together, so for quantum engineering to progress we need new measurement approaches as well.
A common and broad theme that continues to grow in significance is software. Software is playing an ever-greater role in the design, development and deployment of electronic products and solutions. Hardware is still used to acquire the raw measurement data, but it is software that is used to perform the rich analysis and visualization needed to make technical and business decisions.
The various pieces of software used for each lifecycle phase are themselves being integrated into platforms that foster interoperability and data sharing across the workflow. For many companies, overall workflow productivity is a key means to improve their business results.
These areas and others are what keep things exciting for everyone in the ecosystem, including students soon to begin their career, or a practitioner with decades of experience.