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Mark Elo, director, RFI new product development, Keithley Instruments

Mark Elo, director, RFI new product development, Keithley Instruments, talks with Chris Shaw

CS: How have the demands of electronics manufacturers changed since the start of the recession – and how has Keithley Instruments adapted?
ME: Keithley has customers in many segments of the electronics manufacturing market and all of them are more interested than ever in making sure their r&d and production test systems deliver accurate test results with high throughput. They also need us to provide them with solutions that minimise their long term cost of test. Although everyone in electronics manufacturing shares these concerns, wireless device manufacturers must also focus on choosing instrumentation that won't sacrifice the flexibility they need to adapt to changes in signal bandwidth, frequency, and communication protocol for the growing range of devices they need to test. Because my background is in the wireless industry, I'll talk mostly about those issues, but a lot of the same concerns apply to the electronics manufacturing business as a whole.

The recession is requiring that everyone in the wireless device industry do more – more devices, more device types, higher testing throughput, faster time to market – with less – fewer staff, tighter hardware and software budgets, less system integration time and shorter learning curves. One of our goals at Keithley is to help wireless device manufacturers keep their test operations in synch with changing technologies so they can get new products to market in a timely way and get their share of today's somewhat weakened demand.

We're approaching this goal from a few different angles. The first of these is the DSP based software defined radio (SDR) architecture that underlies both our vector signal generation (Series 2900) and vector signal analysis (Series 2800) product lines. This high speed architecture can be adapted to generate or analyse virtually any signal without the need to replace the instrumentation itself, which gives these instruments exceptional flexibility in both r&d and production test environments. Instead of requiring months to source, receive, and integrate new test hardware, test engineers can update their systems to take on new devices literally in minutes, just by uploading new software into their existing instrumentation. That kind of adaptability means they can use the same hardware for testing everything from mobile phones to connectivity appliances – using any combination of radio technologies, including GSM, W-CDMA, WLAN, WiMAX and LTE.

We're also working closely with chipset designers, including Fujitsu Microelectronics Limited, to understand their designs so we can create chip specific test solutions so that those who make devices based on these chipsets can incorporate these tests easily into their manufacturing test systems. So, say that someone wants to make a WiMAX dongle, they can use the Fujitsu chipset and our tests, and they're a lot closer to having their production test line up and running. By collaborating with chip designers in this way, we can ensure their devices can be tested efficiently and quickly in the final product.

CS: Keithley's recent European seminar tour covered more than a dozen European cities. How important are training and seminars in the current downturn?
ME: In a downturn, the pressure to produce even better, more capable products in order to stay competitive increases dramatically. Obviously, creating new product capabilities usually depends on mastering new technologies. However, at the same time, manufacturers have more limited funds available to train their people on these new technologies.

Our European seminar tour provided live technical lectures that covered test and measurement innovations in wireless/RF, nanotechnology, and electronic systems. The wireless/RF seminars focused on LTE and WiMAX technologies, which are based on MIMO and OFDM schemes, for which Keithley instrumentation has been optimised. Given the importance of European firms in the development of LTE based technologies, we devoted a lot of time to LTE oriented material.

Our training approach has several advantages; first, it's free, so manufacturers don't have to spend any of their limited training budgets to get people trained in the new technologies. Also, we spend a lot of time in our seminars focusing on new test technologies that offer manufacturers greater testing efficiencies. Our free SignalMeister RF communications test toolkit software, which allows engineers to create and analyse the complex signals used in the most advanced wireless transmission protocols, is one of these technologies.

CS: With the introduction of LTE, what will Keithley's prime challenges be?
ME: Our challenge is providing our customers with solutions that reflect the latest changes in the LTE standard as quickly as possible and in a format that's easy to use. Fortunately, the combination of our SignalMeister software platform and our instruments' software defined radio architecture simplifies delivering those solutions. Today's LTE systems employ a 2x2 configuration with a channel bandwidth of 20MHz; our MIMO test systems can be expanded all the way to 8x8 with support for channel bandwidths up to 40MHz.

CS: What are the challenges of mass market femtocell production testing?
ME: Perhaps the biggest test challenge for femtocell manufacturers is to minimise the time necessary to ramp their manufacturing and test lines up to volume production. Before that can happen, they need to understand the challenges of integrating multiple instruments into test systems and maximizing the throughput of those systems.

Femtocell manufacturers are stuck somewhere between the test challenges handset manufacturers face and those that base station manufacturers face. A handset supports just one telephone call at a time; a base station has to support multiple telephone calls based on multiple standards simultaneously, which means far greater testing complexity. At the same time, given the relatively low price of femtocells and their lower volumes (relative to handsets), manufacturers must control their test equipment costs tightly to keep their overall production costs in line.

CS: What can we next expect from Keithley in terms of RF MIMO test?
ME: We're continuing to evolve our MIMO test solutions to offer even larger configurations and higher bandwidths. A new variant of WiMAX technology, the 802.16m, is an emerging technology worthy of consideration, so we're likely to incorporate support for it in a future version of our SignalMeister software platform.

CS: What contingency plans does Keithley have as wireless technology evolves?
ME: As part of the evolution of our MIMO test technologies, we're working with leading research institutes around the world on emerging technology standards based on MIMO and OFDM. I can't talk about it too much at this point, but we're working on some innovative things I find very exciting.

Chris Shaw

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