Maximizing Performance with Automated Test Equipment
Asia Business Outlook Team
In an interaction with Asia Business Outlook, Joseph Soo, VP, APAC Sales Applications, National Instruments, shares his views on how the automated test equipment market is expanding, why systems should be capable of handling high-volume production environments, what are the principle approaches behind testing and more.
The automated test equipment market is expanding rapidly, driven by increasing demand for reliable and efficient testing solutions across industries such as electronics, automotive, and telecommunications. How do you see this market evolving in Asia?
The semiconductor industry has a globally integrated supply chain, and the majority of the semiconductor foundries that Automated Test Equipment (ATE) serves are located in Asia. These companies have experienced turbulence due to the pandemic and geopolitical change, but it has not stopped technological innovations and business models from evolving.
Emerging technologies and applications like generative AI, wireless and RF for 5G/6G telecommunication, autonomous electric vehicles, and an increasing focus on environmental sustainability are profoundly accelerating the pace of technological advancement.
A major challenge in automated testing is achieving comprehensive test coverage. ATE systems need to cover a wide range of test scenarios to ensure that all aspects of the device or system under test are thoroughly tested. How can this challenge be addressed?
We believe that the answer lies in an open platform. If we design a single solution for a specific problem statement, when we have a new problem statement, we must design the solution again. If we continue down this path, we will end up with (literally) a room full of single-solution systems. Let’s change it another way. Build on a single, underlying platform of software and hardware, offering the openness and flexibility we need to integrate third-party hardware and software, as well as industry-specific mechanical enclosures and fixturing, adopting a customer-defined concept rather than vendor-defined. Then we have a living and breathing approach. It grows with us and evolves with the ever-changing needs. We can upgrade part of the software or hardware when some particular technology or application develops while keeping the whole solution consistent. It connects tools, people, and processes so we can work in a holistic way with a clear vision to achieve KPIs, not only test coverage but also reliability, test time, cost, etc.
Additionally, it integrates flexible validation stations with connected software and a data strategy that intelligently analyzes and communicates information to people and across departments, increasing collaboration and accelerating the journey from idea to production.
In high-volume production environments, minimizing the test time per unit is crucial to maintaining production efficiency. However, reducing test time while maintaining thorough testing coverage can be a challenging trade-off. How can this problem be solved?
Yes, this is a common challenge, especially for those increasingly complex RF and mixed-signal ICs. The majority of testing relies on automated test equipment (ATE) in production environments and rack-and-stack "box" instrumentation in characterization labs. Typical box instrumentation has limited capacity to run a large number of parts, and test time is slower than that of ATEs. Yet, using ATE for characterization comes at a significant capital cost in terms of floor space, power requirements, and more.
For most IC vendors who rely on box instrumentation for characterization and ATE for production, another time-consuming task arises when lab data needs to be correlated with production data. The data correlation task takes a few weeks simply because the data sets were taken with completely different sets of test equipment. This adversely impacts the product development cycle.
As the overall wafer fabrication cost increases with advanced process geometries and, in particular, as the photomask cost soars, IC makers need to minimize costly mask set redesigns. Consequently, it becomes even more essential to obtain detailed test data from a statistically significant population of devices at each revision of silicon in characterization. Here again, the approach of using box instrumentation in characterization labs becomes a limiting factor in running a large number of devices.
The ideal solution, as most experienced test managers point out, is to have a single ATE platform that provides sufficient scalability to be adopted in characterization labs, while deploying the same system in the production line. This solves the issue of running significant samples in characterization while providing correlation by design. The correlation is still necessary, but the task itself is greatly simplified because the same hardware and software are used, thus taking much less time and improving the product development cycle. This relatively simple concept has proven to be quite difficult to implement, partially because it requires crossing the market boundaries between box-instrument vendors and traditional ATE vendors.
For radio frequency IC (RFIC) makers, especially those involving RF front-end ICs such as RF power amplifiers or front-end modules, there are additional challenges with using traditional ATE for production, mainly because fast-evolving RF standards drive rapid changes in test requirements. Some top-tier RFIC makers are now performing certain tests in production that were previously considered characterization tests, such as harmonic measurements. When this traditionally considered characterization test gets implemented in production, the use of traditional ATE becomes more challenging. For this reason, some RFIC makers choose to build their own production test systems, most of them based on PXI. The PXI is an open platform that has seen rapid adoption in automated test applications. The simple idea of PC-based instrumentation with a rugged industrial form factor, along with integrated timing and synchronization and highly productive software, proved to be one of the best choices for automated test systems.
This is what NI describes as a platform-based approach, a system-level offering that meets the operational requirements of the semiconductor production test environment. It combines the openness and flexibility of PXI with semiconductor production test cell requirements such as handler and probe integration, spring probe device under test (DUT) interfacing, and system-level calibration. Its ready-to-run test management software can manage code modules written in a LabVIEW or.NET environment, is open to 3rd party semiconductor industry-specific modules, and has built-in multisite support, where a test program written for a single site operation can be quickly scaled to support multisite testing.
What are the principal approaches taken in testing?
Recently, NI surveyed a group of over 200 test leaders across multiple industries. Not surprisingly, the data revealed that more than 80% of test leaders view quality and reliability among their top three goals. It also revealed that over a third of teams were performing below expectations. The data is clear that many testing organizations require a different approach. At NI, our fundamental belief is that test can be a strategic differentiator that delivers business outcomes. So how do we do this? There are three main approaches that test organizations use to deliver business value.
AUTOMATION: Engineers are still using manual approaches to testing. Not only does this take longer, but it also limits their ability to make product decisions using test data. Automating measurements with software is often the first step to modernizing a lab or manufacturing facility.
STANDARDIZATION: Organizations that standardize processes, systems, software, and data develop new products faster and at a lower cost.
ELEMENT; businesses make more efficient use of insights and data to improve product development and refer to this as "digital transformation." We’ve been hearing about digital transformation for over a decade; you may even be tired of hearing the term. But it is more than just hype. We see an opportunity to help our customers more quickly implement their digital transformation initiatives by better managing data and systems. These results then drive efficiency and insight.