Standardizing Platforms from Characterization to Production


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Australia's first mobile phone call was made in a car on 9 August, 1981. It took a decade to reach the market, and it was sold for AUD $5,200. Then, it supported a single band, and it weighed and felt like a brick, for which it was famously named. Fast forward three decades: The mobile phone industry has undergone multiple disruptions caused by game-changing technologies, including the development of 4G network. The form and functionality of a mobile phone have also improved. The app ecosystems have grown, network speeds increased, and prices dipped.

However, the disruptions have also introduced new challenges for suppliers of RF components to surmount. According to a recent Databeans analyst forecast, the cost of radio frequency integrated circuits (RFICs) for mobile devices has dropped by more than 40% since 2007. This is despite the rise of device complexity. Ten years ago, a single-function GSM power amplifier was the norm. Today, many RFICs are significantly more complex. They support multiple radio standards and multiple bands with more advanced technologies such as dynamic power supplies, MIPI digital interfaces, and more.

To maintain profitable margins against lower retail prices, companies were in the past compelled to think of innovative ways to reduce the cost of semiconductor design and test. This eventually led to RFIC suppliers switching their focus on decreasing the cost of manufacturing test. Over the past decade, this intense focus has produced a significant shift from using turnkey ATE solutions to building in-house and cost-optimized testers based on off-the-shelf instrumentation. This shift to a custom tester approach has been a large factor in the success of modular instrumentation platforms like PXI in manufacturing particularly because modular instruments have shown excellent value per performance.

Competition and innovation increase pressure on cost

As market competition intensifies at an ever-accelerating pace of wireless innovation, shortening the product design cycle using standardized design and test tools have become an increasingly popular strategy. In the past, product development teams often used different design and test practices and equipment in each phase of product development. Today, many companies are adopting an integrated platform approach to help reduce overlaps and in turn total test costs as well as time to market. As the 2015 McClean Report put, organizations must place greater effort into "decreasing IC design, development, and fabrication expenditures in order for the industry to maintain its continuous reduction in cost per function."

Innovations in test equipment are now making the desire to use a common test platform from design to test possible. A decade ago, the test equipment engineers used in their characterization labs was unable to keep up with high-volume manufacturing test, and different tools were used throughout the product life cycle. Today, PXI instruments offer the measurement accuracy required for R&D and the speed required for manufacturing test. As a result, organizations are increasingly standardizing modular instrument platforms throughout the entire design cycle, which directly reduces the cost associated with correlating measurement results. In addition to the improved speed and measurement quality of PXI, application-specific systems, such as the NI Semiconductor Test System, build on the PXI platform by adding a rugged enclosure, fixturing, DUT control, and the turnkey software required for the semiconductor manufacturing environment.

To read this entire article, which appeared in the July 2016 issue of SMT Magazine, click here.

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