Driving a New Paradigm: How the IoT Is Transforming Test
In this issue’s Q&A feature, we talk with Derek Floyd, director of business development for Advantest America. Derek has presented at multiple conferences and workshops on the changes being wrought on the test industry by the advent of the Internet of Things (IoT), and how Advantest is uniquely addressing these challenges.
Q: What is driving technology requirements in today’s tech industry?
A: Over time, the industry has been driven by integration: more and more functionality is being integrated into end products. Mobility has been, and will continue to be, the predominant catalyst. However, in the IoT era, these mobile devices now also serve as infrastructure hubs for peripheral devices from which they obtain information. This is driving increased value. Many capabilities are being accessed via mobile products – with our smartphones, we can now get all our data from the cloud, manage our personal networks, monitor our health and fitness, and control automation and security in our homes, to name just a few applications. This is fueling an increase in silicon volume, along with the massive increase in automation, particularly in the automotive space… all of which is enabled by higher integration.
Q: Given this backdrop, what are the most prevalent areas in which IoT technology is impacting test?
A: Two key areas are analog integration and power management. In the IoT space, analog functionality and accuracy become more and more important given the volume of analog devices being deployed in mobile products. In turn, power management must be highly efficient to sustain battery life. Batteries need to be used and managed efficiently, so that your smart device can reliably turn off or go into sleep mode when necessary to extend battery life.
Another important aspect is wireless connectively – we need more of it, and we need it more quickly. Carrier aggregation is increasing bandwidth, so wireless connectivity must be able to handle it, as well as more data and applications. Low-power device connectivity is a particular concern for wearables, which are connected into an infrastructure that’s being required to handle very large amounts of data traffic.
Consumerization means lower cost, drives volume – test is close to end of the manufacturing chain, and that creates pressure to lower the overall cost of test and make devices more economical to produce and ship. We need to shorten time to production test and increase the amount of parallelism. When you purchase a test cell, it can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, so you need to test as many devices as possible per hour to justify the cost. In addition, many peripheral chips are sub-dollar devices, and this further increases the pressure to slash test costs and test times.
Q: What steps has Advantest taken to address these burgeoning IoT test requirements?
A: Quite some time ago, we decided as part of our strategy to focus on a tester-per-pin architecture – all of the functionality is behind every pin. We believe that using this test processor architecture is critical; then all we have to do is change out the front end as needed. We started doing this for digital test first – using a digital card with the same test processor and same memory – then we created device power supply cards, and now we put it into all the analog and RF cards. The V93000 is a true per-pin architecture, which gives us a lot of flexibility. Our concept is to have as many universal pins on the tester as possible, so we can test almost any type of device, with the highest levels of parallelism.
Q: in what other ways has integration influenced the test process?
A: Integrating anything allows you to make it smaller. Testers historically were very large machines that cost $1 million or more. Now, if you integrate more and more functionality into the cards, you need fewer cards in the system, which means the infrastructure can be very small. Testers for IoT can now cost as little $100,000. This is one of the key benefits of getting the cost out of test – by increasing integration and putting much smaller ATE in place, you can greatly lower your cost of ownership. And if the cost of the part is only cents, you need to test quickly and test many devices – 64 or 128 – in parallel.
Q: How do the Wave Scale cards for the V93000 help advance these objectives?
A: Wave Scale features a high degree of integration. The RF aspect is especially important because everything related to the IoT has some degree of connectivity today, such as smart watches connecting to your smartphone via Bluetooth or some other RF interface. Wave Scale RF has four independent RF subsystems and 32 RF ports per card. With greater integration, we can fit more channels on the board and multiple boards in a system, which means we can increase parallelism, as well as control everything via a sequenced approach – just the same way you’d test everything digitally. Again, our goal is more capability, and more parallel test.
Q: Can you provide an example of how the multi-site parallelism works?
A: If you look at Figure 1, with one board, we can test 16 devices doing transmit (Tx) test and 16 devices doing receive (Rx) test, and then we can just flip them about. We can literally test 32 devices in parallel. This enables us to reduce the overall cost of test of the devices. With this approach, instead of taking 1 second to test a single device, we can test 32 devices in that same 1 second. Thus, combining the Wave Scale card with the V93000 lets you address the three key blocks for IoT: digital, analog and RF.
Q: Aside from consumer and wearable devices, what are key applications where this is essential?
A: For IoT, specifically, you have sensors – the most prevalent use of sensors is in the automotive area. Power management is critical, the microcontroller (MCU) is critical because the application requires very low power and high functionality and is highly integrated, and then there’s the connectivity. The number of sensors in vehicles continues to grow – they’re now in the double digits and moving into the triple digits because sensors are doing everything. Early on, sensors were used for engine management and tire pressure monitoring systems; then, they were implemented for lane control and radar that estimates distance between vehicles for forward collision. Now, we’re also seeing sensors for parking and cameras, measuring individual driver performance, handling acceleration and deceleration, and being used for feedback in the braking system.
Q: How does your approach compare to competitive IoT solutions?
A: Our single platform that can cover everything greatly appeals to customers when they’re comparing us to our largest competitor, which still has several different, disconnected products in its portfolio. So, for example, with the V93000, we can easily scale down in terms of low-cost digital test or to compete in the cost-sensitive analog space, whereas they have a completely different tester for each application. This also allows us to scale up configurations and offer very high levels of integration and high pin counts, which they simply cannot do. We offer a degree of flexibility, scalability and future-readiness with the V93000 that they can’t match. A smaller competitor is trying to match our strategy and go the single-platform route, but they can’t match the integration and level of functionality and performance that we offer.
Another aspect relates to the nature of IoT devices. Because the IoT tends to involve a large number of peripheral devices, they can be miniscule, with very low pin counts, but will still be made in high volumes. Some companies try to get by with using ultra-low-cost tester platforms, but these products tend not to deliver satisfactory throughput or to be able to scale upwards for high parallelism. Because the semiconductor industry is very mature, we have worked hard to demonstrate that you can viably take out much of the cost of test compared to traditional ATE. Over the long term, the V93000 can be used to test virtually anything, and becomes highly cost-effective to have on your test floor.
Q: How do you see the IoT industry evolving over the next five years?
A: I believe that the IoT category, which we define as peripheral devices that deliver data, will explode in terms of unit volume. That’s huge because it is all very low cost. The biggest challenge for test is that many people in the industry will argue that test isn’t really a value-add; it’s a necessity. However, delivering quality to the end customer is essential, so we need to make sure that we can validate all this silicon cost-effectively. This will be a continuous challenge over the next few years: can we test these devices effectively and economically? If you’re spending a lot of money on something as a consumer, you expect a quality product – you can’t have a high-end product breaking because of a 5-cent part. The onus on the industry is to make sure we deliver quality parts to the end customer – it’s essential in automotive, but even for consumerization it’s also vital. If you buy a $100 smart watch, you expect the heart rate monitor to work correctly over the full lifetime of the product.
Quality is important, and the reputation of the company is key. If you want to be a supplier to a major manufacturer, you need to make sure you can guarantee quality. In the past decade, tester cost has gone down by more than half, but throughput per test cell is up by fivefold. The V93000 per-pin architecture has matched this trend, and this is a big advantage for Advantest in being able to continue reducing test costs year over year.