Engineers working on electronics systems are used to change. Traditionally change has been driven by the continuing cost reductions enabled by Moore’s Law.

Today, the rise of connectivity-enabled technologies ranging from the Internet of Things (IoT) to the metaverse provides even more impetus for change. Test and Measurement is an essential component of any engineering organisation’s ability to develop products. This puts test equipment manufacturers at the forefront of dealing with this continual evolution to meet market requirements.

One clear driving force in the development of new test equipment is how manufacturers engage with customers to determine the challenges faced by engineers. Though there is a continuing focus on improving measurement accuracy and bandwidth, many of the changes to design are being driven by the way instruments are being used.

“It’s primarily about the customer. How they will use the product is how we will design it. Making it easier for the customer to do their job is paramount” says Justin Sheard, Senior Engineer and Industrial Imaging Specialist at Fluke.

Bradley Odhner, Technical Marketing Manager for Tektronix and Keithley, agrees. He points out the company employs people whose primary role is to perform this kind of customer engagement. “We spend a lot of time talking to customers to figure out what they need right now but more importantly what they're going to need in a few years.”

Customers drive new features

The focus on customer engagement leads to insights not just on how engineers interact with the tools but the kinds of features that new instruments need to support. For example, energy efficiency is already a major concern for many engineering teams. Now, the availability and environmental cost of resources that go into the manufactured products are becoming more important to society, and as a result, product-engineering teams. Kai Scharrmann, Head of Sales for Hioki Europe, points to the work now being performed in battery design. “The cells that are being developed focus on packing more energy into the same, or even less space. That is not the only requirement. There is also a big drive to reduce the amount of difficult-to-source and polluting elements, such as cobalt. The latest batteries are much greener as they feature only a fraction of cobalt in comparison to a decade ago.”

These market concerns, in turn, drive the capabilities that manufacturers put into their test equipment. Alternatives to cobalt have been difficult to find because they have often shown problems with degradation over time. Repeated, automated measurements during stress testing will be important to identifying candidate chemistries and charging-control algorithms and so represent important features for test equipment.

The demand for new solutions can generate novel forms of instrumentation, says Sheard. “Our mission is to keep the world up and running. We create tools to put in the hands of the people that keep operations going and it applies to so many different products.” As an example, Sheard points to the maintenance of industrial motors and machine tools. “Motors, bearings and other mechanical components are subsystems that represent the heart and soul of a factory but maintaining them is expensive.”

One big problem is that many conventional analysis techniques can only examine the surface of these moving parts. However, as they can penetrate the material, acoustic waves can tell maintenance technicians and engineers so much more by showing the presence of faults inside bearings and motors. To bring acoustic imaging to the factory floor, Fluke has incorporated acoustic imaging into its ii900 and ii910 handheld instruments. “If you think of thermal imaging and how that disrupted manufacturing and preventive maintenance 10, 15 or 20 years ago, acoustic imaging is doing that now,” Sheard explains.

Improvements to usability

The focus on customer needs has led to manufacturers such as Tektronix finding ways to rethink the user interfaces on their instruments to help customers take the measurements they need more quickly. “We saw this trend that engineers want to be able to do things faster and easier,” explains Odhner. The first step was to come up with a novel interface designed from scratch that met with positive feedback from the customer base. “That brand-new user interface became the current user interface on our 3-, 4-, 5- and 6-series oscilloscopes.”

Thanks to the increasing software content of instrumentation, improvements do not necessarily have to wait for new hardware to take advantage of usability improvements. “Our customers can simply download the latest version of the software and they retrospectively get all of the features that have been added to the latest version of the software,” says Mike Purday, Manager of the EMEA region for Pico Technology. “At the moment we are working on a very large new release; everybody that’s got a PicoScope is going to benefit from that update free of charge.”

Lower-cost systems

When it comes to the capabilities that will be coming to mainstream instruments tomorrow, some are already available in high-end products today. As the cost of electronics reduce thanks to the product learning curve, development feeds through from advanced development to lower-cost systems. “We have the same situation that is seen in Formula 1 where mainstream automobile companies invest into high-end racing teams. They put all this high-end equipment and technology into the racing car but after a while you can see it trickle down into the normal mass-produced cars. We apply the same approach to our product development,” says Scharrmann. “Today we are making high-end current sensors that let you measure 800A at 4MHz. That technology, that knowledge and that experience trickles down into a standard meter, for example. This is one of the reasons why our clamp meters are really, really precise.”

Keysight Product Manager Mike Hoffman sees the same effect in oscilloscopes. “We’ve seen it in the past where a 1GHz oscilloscope used to be the Ferrari of scopes. Then over time as technology progresses, the things that it took to make a 1GHz scope become cheaper to produce. Either that or we would come up with new ways to build it and make it more affordable.”

Looking further out, the test suppliers watch even more advanced research. This helps them identify the technologies they can incorporate into leading-edge instruments. “I spend a good amount of my time each month reading scientific papers from journals that I keep tabs on, not just to try and see what the hot technology is, but also to see what tests those scientists are doing in order to evaluate their technology,” says Odhner, adding that these types of measurement circuitry will be important for extending the range of existing instrumentation and creating new types of products. “They start in early research, move into mass manufacturing until they’re eventually commonplace.”

Setting new standards

Finally, an area that test companies monitor and actively participate in is standardisation. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and similar bodies are actively pushing the capacity and performance of PCIe, Ethernet, WiFi and other communications standards further. Test instrumentation suppliers play active roles on many of these bodies. “For things like PCIe, we will sit on those boards in order to try and define the standard and also get knowledge on what the standard is going to be in the future so we can start developing equipment that will test it,” says Odhner.

Another aspect of participation on standards bodies as well as interactions with academia is the need to ensure that the protocols developed can be tested effectively and determine whether alternative methods are needed. “When talking about low-level measurements, one of the first things that you want to be able to ask is: ‘how low can I measure?’ There are fundamental limits,” Odhner explains. “The universe doesn’t allow us to measure certain voltages on certain resistance materials because you actually hit the uncertainty principle. There are just physical limits of our universe for how far you can measure.”

Technology will continue to change; however test suppliers have embraced that reality and have attuned themselves to respond in a timely way, ensuring engineers will have the test solutions they need to drive innovation and complete their projects.

Author details: Cliff Ortmeyer, Global Head of Technical Marketing at Farnell