What Will the Next Generation of R&D
Instruments Look Like?
Looking at a new generation of users, electronic test instrument manufacturers focus their
efforts on creating user-friendly, modern tools.
Over the past decade, significant changes have been underway among users of electronic test and measurement instru- mentation. For example, electronics
companies’ R&D staffs have shrunk, and engineers report they are under pressure to do more
with fewer resources than in the past. At the same
time, there are fewer engineers dedicated to test
with in-depth test and measurement training and
background. This means there are fewer engineers focusing on getting accurate measurements
in the most efficient way possible. In addition to
the traditional electrical engineer user, today’s
users increasingly come from backgrounds like
materials engineering, electrochemistry, biotechnology and physics, who often have limited experience in configuring electrical measurements
or who only occasionally borrow an instrument
from another department.
One in five electrical engineers now on the
job has started his or her career within the last
decade. This has a number of ramifications.
For example, these younger engineers tend
to be more software-oriented than hardware-
oriented. This challenge is compounded by
growing time-to-market pressure as design
cycles continue to shrink. All of these factors
are imposing heavier time and financial bur-
dens on test instru-
ment users and their
with instruments was
typically anything but
a seamless process.
For those who used
instrumentation a few
decades ago, taking
data often required
ing readings from an
analog dial (Figure 1)
Figure 1: Instruments with early analog inter-
faces often required taking data manually.
or using a ruler to measure traces from a strip
chart recorder printout.
Light-emitting diode (LED) and liquid-crys-tal display (LCD) digital readout displays and
push-button control interfaces, represented the
first substantial interface innovations for local
(on-instrument) measurement configuration
(Figure 2). The first communications interfaces
(including RS-232 and GPIB) were soon added
to instruments to support system integration
and triggering, remote programming and control, as well as transfer of data to external controllers for analysis and display.
In the 1990s, users began to demand further
detail on their measurements, such as the level of
current sourced to the device under test, voltage
limits and error messages. This demand eventually led vendors to begin developing brighter,
easier-to-read, multiline vacuum fluorescent displays that could display multiple measurements
simultaneously from a single measurement connection. This new display capability also made it
possible to present measurement results in more
intuitive ways, such as bar graphs. To allow users
to configure the display settings and performance
options, vendors often assigned multiple functions and performance options to the same front
More recently, some graphical user interface
(GUI) designers adopted a soft-key interface and
display approach to simplify the control menu
structure. Although this is a step toward more
intuitive operation, this approach still requires
navigating through multi-level menu structures.
However, within the last few years, a growing
number of vendors have gotten serious about
Figure 2: LED and LCD digital displays and push-button controls replaced analog interfaces.
Image: Keithley Instruments
taking evolving user characteristics and expectations into account in their interface designs.
Vendors, when they have a new product concept, solicit input from customers so they can
understand not just what customers want today,
but also what they’ll need five years from now.
This helps bring their products to market faster.
Trends indicate test engineers want instrumentation interfaces that are intuitive enough to
operate without having to review a manual and
that can take quick measurements at the press
of a button. These demands for more intuitive
operation and faster answers are driving much
of the new thinking behind the next generation
of electronic test instrument design.
Today, younger engineers’ expectations come
from being immersed in a world filled with consumer electronics with advanced touchscreen
interfaces like tablet computers and smart-phones. These influences are now shaping their
attitudes about the instrumentation they use on
the job. For these users, new test instruments
will increasingly offer GUIs that simplify test
setup and present results in a way that’s easy to
interpret. Their operation will be more intuitive
to minimize the learning curve for infrequent or
novice users and to maximize productivity. The
ability to deliver accurate measurements is still
absolutely necessary, but today’s users are also
looking for instruments that allow them to learn
faster, work smarter and invent easier.
Senior Marketer and Product Manager
Keithley Instruments Inc.