Test and Measurement in flux

Kevin Parmenter, Power Systems Design Contributor



Kevin Parmenter, Power Systems Design Contributor

The test and measurement industry is undergoing much of that we have seen lately in the rest of the electronics marketplace, such as consolidation and fervent M&A activity.  Old-line names such as Keithley, Fluke and Tektronix and even tiny Voltech are now under the Danaher umbrella. The big daddy of them all in the day, HP-Agilent, spun off their T&M business again to become Keysight., and Lecroy was purchased by Teledyne. 

Foreign companies such as Yokagawa from Japan and Rhode and Schwartz from Germany have recently expanded their global markets from their home turf into other regions, and thus have become more global in nature and more of a force in the industry.  As these companies increase in size and consolidate, this leaves room for specialized players to move into markets that the big boys often ignore. 

The good news is that the engineer working on the bench can get more capability for investment than ever.  Handheld instruments do what expensive bench instruments used to do at a fraction of the price.  Both handheld instruments and bench instruments not only have amazing capabilities and features, they also have better accuracy, precision and resolution than every before. Companies like Rhode and Schwartz have been purchasing budget makers of test equipment such as Hameg in Germany. 

Another very important trend is integrated instruments and/or more software-defined instrumentation from companies such as National Instruments, who also offer specialized hardware (VXI for example) yet also offer software that can automate a plethora of instruments from different companies to automate testing assignments to save time and money. Another trend is that various functions can be combined into one instrument, since more and more test equipment either requires an External PC to function, (or integrates a PC internally)

This gives the ability for test equipment to integrate more functions, which used to require separate instruments. The power electronics field needs specialized instruments such as power analyzers to accurately measure electronics circuits which have complex waveforms where DMM’s cant accurately measure, IR cameras to see which parts are dissipating heat in the system, electronic loads, transient and surge generators to test for IEC compliance hi-pot testers to test for safety and creapage and clearance barriers and frequency response analyzers.  

I recently assisted with a power electronics workshop from Ridley engineering where we used Lecroy oscilloscopes running power456 design software as well as the AP frequency response analyzer all on running on the Lecroy oscilloscope integrated PC.  This means we needed less bench space and this implementation, which saves cost, space, weight, and power and reduce complexity for design engineers.  A few short years ago this kind of “power design workstation” was a dream, and it’s now a very affordable reality. 

As an example in 2001 I purchased a USED FLIR IR camera for a lab I was responsible for a USED camera was over 25000 dollars, we had to negotiate to get in line to be eligible for a refurbished one then state of the art.  When you wanted to use it when turned on it needed about 30 min to an hour to for the sensor to stabilize.   Today you can buy a better unit than that one for under 1500 dollars, hand held battery powered and instant power up and use and they are in stock at distributors if you want one tomorrow. 

The future likely holds more of this for us and that’s a very good thing.  As people have said a craftsman is only as good as their tools and thus in increasing efficiency design engineers are only as good as the test equipment they have access to.