Executive Interview: Brad Robbins, President of LitePoint
What's the elevator speech for LitePoint, including your market and product focus?
LitePoint provides simple, robust wireless test solutions that enable products using the latest wireless technologies to move into high volume production. LitePoint works with all of the leading chipset companies to develop easy-to-deploy, high volume production solutions that guarantee performance and a positive user experience. This helps our customers get products to market faster, with solid quality and good economics.
Wireless technology has become “mission critical” in many applications. Products cannot deliver value unless the wireless functionality works robustly. The desire for more data and less latency has driven a very fast pace of technological change. Getting this new, complex, technology to market in high volume and with high quality through easy-to-use and easy-to-deploy solutions is LitePoint’s focus.
Describe the history of the company.
LitePoint was founded in 2000, just as Wi-Fi was being adopted in laptop computers. At that time, there was no simple wireless test solution. Engineers assembled racks of general purpose lab equipment, which required complex programming to do the testing required for development and production. This could not scale.
LitePoint’s innovation was to design wireless test equipment, purpose-built, for the growing market of wireless consumer devices. This focus led to the creation of single box testers that were very easy to program, with the performance needed for development and the ruggedness needed for factory floors. Basically, laboratory-grade instrumentation that could handle the rigors of a high volume Asian factory floor.
LitePoint brought this same approach to the mobile phone testing market and now, with 5G, is continuing to lead innovation in high performance factory test solutions.
What differentiates LitePoint from other test and measurement companies?
As you know, there are several large companies with general purpose test and measurement solutions. What makes LitePoint unique is our focus on high volume wireless production testing. This has three key elements:
First, we support the entire ecosystem from chipset manufacturers to wireless brands to contract manufacturers. We view the market as a supply chain that must be served and have products that provide that support across the entire chain, which allows us to quickly solve problems that arise in production. As you can imagine, by the time a consumer product has reached production, the pace of spending is peaking. Any delay has large financial implications on profit, ROI and market share. LitePoint’s supply chain coverage provides the fast response customers need.
Second, we focus on building reference designs for test. Many product designers are familiar with reference designs — these are created by the wireless chip companies to speed time to market by providing a solution that can be quickly customized. LitePoint has taken the same approach to test. Our IQfact+ turnkey solutions are very easy to customize and speed time to market.
Third, LitePoint focuses on providing laboratory-grade performance with superior economics. This means providing the best test economics for high volume production. Our equipment has a long life and covers many different technologies, so test assets are not idle. When in use, our equipment has superior units per hour output, enabled by fast test times and the ability to test more than one device at a time.
As 5G evolved from standards on paper to data flowing through 5G networks, what test and measurement challenges did you have to solve — both for sub-6 GHz and the mmWave bands?
5G is an exciting new communications standard. Many people have written about the various benefits, so I’ll focus on the test challenges instead.
5G carries more information per channel than 4G. This means the channel must be higher performance or be “cleaner.” In addition, the channels are wider. To build cleaner and wider channels requires a complete redesign of the RF test equipment for the 5G sub-6 GHz channels. LitePoint has the widest and cleanest sub-6 GHz 5G tester on the market today.
In the case of mmWave, there were additional challenges. All of the suppliers of the components needed to build test equipment were low volume manufacturers focused on military and aerospace applications. These manufacturers were unfamiliar with the pricing and volumes needed by the consumer marketplace. Over the last three years, LitePoint had to carefully build a supply chain that could scale to high volume with good economics for the smartphone market.
The second mmWave challenge is integrated antennas. The only way to calibrate and verify the performance of mmWave consumer products is using over-the-air (OTA) testing approaches. Using traditional approaches to OTA would have required large and expensive chambers. To solve this challenge, LitePoint partnered with several chamber manufacturers to bring innovative smaller chambers to the market and to simplify their setup and calibration.
The last challenge is signal analysis. 5G waveforms are very complex to analyze, and there are many variants in the 3GPP specification. Getting all of this signal processing correlated with the chipset companies, well ahead of any product releases, is critical to a fast production ramp of that consumer product. LitePoint has accomplished that with all the leading chipset companies and, for some, we are the reference standard.
How much of 5G testing leverages the test strategies for other wireless standards, such as LTE, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth?
Viewed at a 10,000 foot level, all wireless testing is very similar. The performance of the product can be improved with calibration, and then there is verification to ensure a happy customer and regulatory compliance.
As you zoom in and look more deeply at each technology, however, you can see there are many differences. Cellular is traditionally a frequency duplex technology (i.e., FDD) , where two frequencies are used at the same time, one for transmitting and one for receiving. Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are time-division technologies (i.e., TDD), where the transmitter and receiver time share the same frequency.
I mentioned earlier that clean channels and wider channels are important. Each technology has different requirements for this performance, with Wi-Fi typically leading the market in performance demands.
Finally, mmWave is really a new challenge for the consumer marketplace, where costs have to be lowered dramatically to reach consumer market price points.
These technology differences drive differences in what the optimal test equipment should look like, and at LitePoint, we have built a product line that provides optimal performance with the minimum necessary product variants. This provides customers with very versatile equipment, which can be utilized over a wide range of devices while still providing excellent performance.
LitePoint is engaged in the developing V2X application. How do you see V2X being deployed and how quickly?
We are very engaged, but the automotive market moves slowly and deliberately. There is a lot of infrastructure to put in place, and there are security issues to work out. Malware on road systems would be a serious problem, so while this is important technology, I do not see a rapid rollout.
What are the test requirements for V2X, and how is LitePoint addressing them?
This technology is well covered by our existing Wi-Fi and cellular test systems. We have coverage for both 802.11p and LTE C-V2X.
The test and measurement industry needs to be out front of new standards and systems — because you can't ship what you can't test. How does LitePoint get involved in these emerging areas, helping shape the standards to optimize testing?
LitePoint works closely with all the chipset companies developing the wireless technologies and with the leading brands adopting that technology.
The challenges in production testing are often different from specification compliance testing. Devices need calibration to get higher performance than the raw silicon provides. This calibration is complex, very chipset specific and not publicly documented. Verification of performance has additional challenges, as it often targets variation specific to particular chipsets or how a chipset is used in a specific consumer product. For example, a consumer product might have multiple radios and interference needs to be tested for specific combinations.
LitePoint works closely with our customers so that our IQfact+ turnkey test solution has the flexibility to handle all the calibration and verification requirements.
You've spent your career in the test and measurement industry. What changes have you observed during your tenure? Do you see any significant shifts on the horizon?
The level of complexity is amazing.
I got my start testing 8-bit converters for the telecommunications industry. These parts revolutionized the transmission of voice calls and eliminated the terrible static and noise we used to have on long distance calls. Now, we can work virtually with colleagues around the world sharing our screens while video conferencing. That is an amazing increase in bandwidth, which has driven incredible complexity and performance into the wireless market.
So in the past, we connected a few computers with Wi-Fi, then we connected all the people with cellular, now we are connecting all the machines. This next step is another huge step up in complexity, and the demands on wireless connectivity will require new innovations and more bandwidth.
An exciting future.
What do you enjoy about your work, and what do you find challenging?
I have often said that I sometimes get tired, but I’ve never been bored working in the test equipment industry. The test equipment business has been described as figuring out how to use yesterday’s technology to test tomorrow’s innovations. So, it is very demanding technically, which I enjoy. But it is also very connected to the economics of mass production. It is not science in a lab, it is engineering in the real world. That connection between technology, business and people has kept me engaged.
At LitePoint, our team is very focused on making a difference for our customers and the world — enabling the next generation of wireless technology to make its way into the products that have become mission critical in factories, business and our personal lives.