MWJ: After 30 years with Agilent Technologies you have just been named the Modular Solutions Marketing Manager after leading the China Communications Operation Marketing Team. Can you start with your definition of a modular solution?
MN: A modular solution is based on a flexible, scalable architecture such as PXI and AXIe. It consists of a set of electronic hardware and software building blocks assembled to solve a specific test problem. For example, to test an RF power amplifier, a modular solution can include a combination of VSG, VSA and other measurement modules and software to fully characterize this RF device. Typically, customers have a specific problem that they need to solve which is based on their unique set of requirements. Our strategy is to develop what we are now calling a “reference solution” that will meet our customer’s requirements for a given application or meets their needs for the basis of a solution that can be customized to become the complete test solution.
MWJ: What are some of the evolving engineering challenges for RF component design that will increasingly require a Modular Solution as envisioned by Agilent and your team?
MN: As wireless devices require multiple channels and antennas we believe we can make a significant contribution to the test industry by taking advantage of PXI and AXIe form factor and the ability to configure many test channels in a smaller footprint than traditional rack and stack equipment.
Another challenge is to test twice as much in half the time. This challenge is driven by the market growth and the increasing number of standards and the fragmentation of frequency ranges. There are more devices to test, and each device needs more tests. Our PXI modular architecture helps our customers achieve the desired test speed.
Emerging technologies, such as envelope tracking, require additional instrumentation to be integrated within existing PA test solutions. Modular instrumentation provides the flexibility to add new equipment, and make measurements across multiple domains.
There is a strong desire to have a solution that can evolve with and grow with the evolving requirements, modularity helps fulfill that desire. New PXI RF solutions from Agilent are delivered to our customer’s hardware ready and can be upgraded as and when customers need additional bandwidth or functionality.
MWJ: How does a modular solution differ from a dedicated rack instrument used on a bench top to measure a given set of metrics such as IMD or gain? What are some of the leading benefits to a modular approach?
MN: Footprint is the biggest difference, but there are other benefits in scalable, multi-channel applications such as the ability to synchronized multiple channels and have custom triggering available for special applications.
Another benefit of modular instrumentation is that test engineers can pick and choose the right modules and software to perform just what is needed for the test.
MWJ: The wireless industry design ecosystem is complex and covers many system layers from chips to modules, boards, devices (user equipment) and entire networks. Development of each layer relies on testing to move the engineering process from R&D through production and manufacturing testing to deployment. Do modular solutions cover all these system layers and design phases or do they benefit a particular sweet spot? For instance, is a PXIe Vector Signal Analyzer mostly for production test or is PXIe technology increasingly being used by R&D? If so, why?
MN: PXI technology has benefits in production test for some of the reasons I just mentioned. In addition, we have made some contributions with innovations such as FastTune to allow our customers to get even higher throughput on their production lines.
When we look at the demand from our customers, we see that various form factors are needed from R&D to manufacturing and deployment, including benchtop, modular and handheld. Modular instrumentation fits best for applications that require automation, small foot print, test speed and scalability.
When you look at the overall design flow, what is really important is to make sure that consistent measurement technology and algorithms are used across the entire product lifecycle.
Most of our customers have heterogeneous environments meaning they have modular equipment and they have the classical benchtop instruments. In many cases like in R&D modular instrumentation does not necessarily give the granularity of results that a benchtop instrument provides. That said, we provide our customers with consistency throughout the product design life-cycle across our product lines. They really appreciate the measurement continuity that they receive here, as they are familiar with the X-Series applications from other benchtop platforms from Agilent.
MWJ: I’ve been wondering lately how R&D and production test teams reconcile measurement results if they use significantly different test/validation systems. Is this a common industry dilemma?
MN: Having consistent results in the measurements made in the design phase and in early productions are important new product design considerations. During the early production phase of a new product introduction it’s important for the designer to know that if there is a measurement difference between the product design test result and the production test result, the difference is not due to the inconsistent measurement approach or measurement algorithm. The difference in result is due to a difference in assembly and production of the device relative to the way the product was assembled in a lab environment.
MWJ: So what are the leading factors to consider in choosing a modular approach versus a traditional rack instrument?
Higher measurement throughput
Popular modular architectures, such as PXI, leverage computer- based technology. The PXIe backplane bus utilizes the PC industry’s PCI Express® Gen2 technology, greatly increasing throughput and reducing latency. This technology helps transfer information between modules and controller at higher speeds, and will reduce test time, especially for data and transaction intensive test applications.
The biggest contributing factor aside from taking advantage of Moore’s Law of integration and miniaturization is the removal of redundant functions in an integrated system. By abstracting the measurement technology from the processing and user interface functions, PXI removes redundancy and can save up to 80% of the space of a traditional system.
Lower power consumption
By virtue of taking advantage of advances in miniaturization and integration, PXI can limit slot power to 30W and still meet many of the needs of higher-end measurements. This means that a fully loaded 18-slot chassis still uses less than 1000W.
MWJ: What (if anything) impedes the adoption of modular solutions by the RF design community?
MN: Bench top instruments are traditional tools with front panels and “preset” buttons that are familiar to our customers. They have become accustomed to this user interface over many decades. Test equipment users also need confidence in the stability and performance and reliability of expensive capital equipment. Modular solutions are new in the market and it may take years for test users to trust the measurements and stability.
MWJ: What is Agilent doing to help more engineers implement modular solutions, from both a product development and support perspective?
MN: One of the key ideas behind our solution development strategy is “choice.” We make it easy for our customers to work in their preferred environment: Microsoft® Visual Studio® .NET, NI LabVIEW, Agilent VEE Pro and so on.
To support their choice, every Agilent module includes the right drivers— IVI-C, IVI-COM or G—for their environment.
Another important concept is enabling measurement and analysis capabilities that are independent of the underlying hardware. For example, applications such as the Agilent 89600 vector signal analysis (VSA) software, the X-Series Measurement Applications, SystemVue System Design EDA environments are fully integrated with Agilent's modular instrumentation, and enable trusted measurements.
From a metrology and support point of view, Agilent performs its own calibrations at each of its 35 service centers worldwide. And we take pride in our product quality, as evidenced by our standard 3 year warranty.
The standard product repair time averages less than 14 days. You have the option to upgrade to our express warranty - the fastest repair service in the industry, with a 5 day typical turnaround time.
MWJ: What’s a good resource for engineers to learn more?
MN: Depending on where engineers are in the design cycle will depend on which resources they use to learn more. We have received a lot of interest in our application notes and whitepapers that we provide which describe applications, challenges and make comments and recommendations around solutions that can help them improve their test scenarios.