Pickering Interfaces CEO Keith Moore shares insight into the state of automated test, the need for switching, and how the test industry reflects the electronics industry.

Switching is one of the test technologies that engineers don't often think about. It is hardly glamourous, but without it, testing would take far longer. Switches have issues, too. Mechanical switches have low RON resistance but limited lifetimes. Semiconductor switches can have long lives, but signal losses are higher than mechanical switches.

Automated test stations depend heavily on switching to connect test equipment to devices under test (DUTs), and many such systems use PXI (PCI eXtensions for Instrumentation) modular instruments. Indeed, when PXI was first introduced in 1997, there were no switching cards available. It was clear even then that, for PXI to succeed, switching cards were needed. Switching cards now connect signals at frequencies from DC to microwave.

To learn about the current state of the PXI switching market, correspondent Martin Rowe paid a visit to the Massachusetts office of Pickering Interfaces. He spoke with Pickering's founder and CEO, Keith Moore, via Skype.

Martin Rowe: What is the general state of switching as used in automated test? Keith Moore: The market for production testing of wireless products has dropped dramatically, with sales declining in 2015, according to Teradyne. The good news is that it's temporary. When new wireless features come along, testing will need to increase. That will especially happen as 5G is developed.

In the meantime, the market for our switching products is growing because a significant part of our PXI switching business is at lower frequencies. Companies that have focused on RF/wireless switching products are seeing flat sales. Testing of consumer products, such as cell phones and wireless products, have seen a high erosion of test coverage. Manufacturers are stressing the need for improved production methods instead of production testing. There was once a time when Ericsson had production lines using hundreds of VXI-based ATE systems to test phones. Those days are gone, and that includes PXI-based systems.

MR: What products require production tests that need switching? KM: Any product that has safety requirements requires that all or most units be tested. For example, automotive, medical, military, and aerospace products need extensive testing. They can't fail in the field.

MR: What about scientific equipment? KM: There's very little demand for scientific equipment relative to, say, automotive products. It's not that testing isn't needed, but scientific is a small market.

MR: How is the market for modular test products doing? KM: Overall, the test market isn't growing, but there's significant growth in modular test products. For example, Keysight's modular test business is growing significantly—by nearly 60 percent annually in 2014 and 2015—but we believe it's taking away from the sale of box instruments.

MR: How do you compete against the likes of National Instruments and Keysight? KM: We compete by innovating and by doing our own manufacturing. Let's face it: switching is boring. Many engineers don't see it as the pinnacle of their careers. But, because of constantly changing demands, we have no shortage of ideas for new products.

Pickering manufactures on demand, so we're able to change our manufacturing quickly in response to small orders. Our manufacturing plants in the Czech Republic and in the UK have about a three-week turnaround on orders. Our business model is to stay close to the customer.

We also design and manufacture our own reed relays. All manufacturing is "in-house," so we don't have to conform to the production schedules of contract manufacturers. Retaining complete control of manufacturing lets us offer a product range with long product life cycles, typically to 20 years.

MR: Do you sell directly to end users or to third-party system integrators? KM: Most of our business goes to end users who develop PXI-based automated testers for in-house use. A small percentage goes to system integrators who develop test stations for manufacturers.

First published by EDN.