Widely available computing power will both create and solve problems in the 1990s. Testing problems will be created by the increasingly complex chip and board designs that computer power makes possible, but new types of computer-based test equipment will be developed to solve these problems. Test equipment for both software and hardware will see great advances due to increased computing power.
The trend toward modular designs for electronic components will be accelerated as improvements in test equipment ease the burden of testing modular components. Current ASIC verification equipment that compares results achieved in simulation with results achieved in tests of the real device and highlights differences will serve as a model for new test systems for assembled circuit boards. This equipment will allow engineers to design massively complex systems that were inconceivable before because of the impossibility of testing them. The test environment in the 1990s will see built-in self-test and external test equipment working in conjunction to improve the overall performance of electronic components.
The next decade will see the influence of the computer reach new plateaus: Every aspect of electronic engineering, from the first stages of design, through manufacturing, final test, and field service will be affected. The widespread availability of computing power will create and solve difficult problems. It will create testing problems with the increased complexity of chips and boards that can be designed. Consequently, new types of application-focused test equipment to analyze the chips and boards will arrive, which use computing power and communications to combat these obstacles.
More computing power will also forge great improvements in software test equipment. The equipment will include instruments to functionally verify software, measure software performance, and determine whether it was fully and correctly executed.
This software test equipment will be closely coupled to the new test equipment for hardware. Single measurement platforms will analyze any characteristic of an electronic system, from the analog characteristics to microprocessor and software analysis. This will be a true “test station,” which will be used in conjunction with the “workstations” of the future to supply a consistent design and test environment.
One consequence of these improvements will be an acceleration of the design modularity trend for almost all electronic systems. Modular design is attractive because engineers can quickly develop extremely well-focused products. But it puts a heavy burden on test engineers to ensure that software and hardware modules work properly in all of their intended environments and combinations. For example, if your product is a plug-in board for the IBM PC/AT, you want to ensure that it will work in every PC/AT that IBM has shipped and in the boxes they will produce in the future. Improvements in test equipment will ease that testing job and thus encourage this focus on modularity.
Current ASIC verification test equipment gives us a glimpse of what the future holds in this area. Such equipment is linked to a design system, from which it gains access to the test vectors that were applied to the ASIC during the simulation phase of the design process. It applies those vectors to the real device during test, compares the actual results with the simulated results, and highlights any differences.
In the ’90s, that same approach will be applied to assembled circuit boards, which are even more complex than ASICs because they can hold from 6 to 20 complex ICs. Design equipment capable of full board-level simulations will be widely available, and links will be supplied between board testers and design. As a result, engineers will be free to design systems of enormous complexity–systems that previously were unthinkable because they would have been impossible to test.
Most electronic products will have some built-in self-test circuitry that can verify the equipment’s functionality but can’t make reliable time-domain measurements. External test instrumentation will always be needed to ensure that the equipment meets system specifications.
In fact, built-in self test and instrumentation will work together in the next decade. Diagnostic techniques, such as boundary scan, will give rise to test equipment that can clock the preset values into a circuit and record the outputs of the scan circuitry. This will enable rapid scan-test development, and make it possible for circuit defects to be quickly isolated.
This same instrumentation will also measure the timing margin of the circuit under test to ensure that an electronic module will work in all of the intended environments. In future manufacturing facilities, continuous tracking of the timing margins will offer an early warning of system problems, which could shut down a production line. If the system timing margins are deteriorating, individual component performance can be checked and the cause determined, while the systems are still meeting specifications.
Meeting all specifications is one measure of quality that American electronics companies are striving to achieve. Tektronix and its customers are trying to make sure that our verification of performance is rigorous–that every function in a complex IC works, that every branch of a program executes correctly, and that plug-in boards function at every clock speed it may encounter.