Product Focus: Automatic Test Equipment

By Jonathan Ray | September 1, 2011
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For automated test equipment (ATE) developers, addressing complexity is their specialty. It is no simple chore to keep the systems on a variety of legacy and new military aircraft bristling with latest technologies fit for service in an ever-changing operational environment.

Along with a dose of creativity, the developers of these systems accomplish this using a growing array of standard platforms and advanced technologies to construct more capable, compact and efficient testing systems to address old and new technology challenges.

For these efforts, the global ATE market booked revenue of $1.32 billion in 2009, a tally that is estimated to reach $1.44 billion by 2014, according to Frost and Sullivan. ATE today represents around 20 percent to 30 percent of the traditional testing market, but the ATE market is undergoing some robust growth, said Sujan Sami, industry manager for Frost & Sullivan’s Measurement & Instrumentation practice.

However, Chris Clendenin, director for ground support systems at Boeing, offered one caveat: “It is somewhat difficult to forecast this component of the support business well because customers will tend to make decisions and put budgetary requests in place quickly to try to supplement shortfalls in this area, so sometimes we have not a lot of notice to go after competitive opportunities in the defense or commercial markets.”

Boeing is one of a roster of aerospace and military contractors in the market segment that also includes EADS, BAE, Lockheed Martin and AAI Corp., as well as test equipment specialists like Teradyne and AeroFlex. It is “a highly priced market requiring significant capital investment, so a small new vendor faces a huge barrier to entry,” Sami said.

Along with cost, there is complexity. In the current economy, it is very difficult to determine where “to make your investments on R&D to get the biggest bang for your buck,” said Harry McGuckin, vice president of business development and marketing for testing services at EADS North America Test and Services. “There are not going to be too many organizations that have the financial backing to be able to address all the (market) trends.”

Key market drivers begin with government military spending. The United States is clearly leading the pack anteing up $661 billion in 2009, compared with second place China’s $100 billion investment, said Sami, adding globally about 55 percent of the spending on ATE is by the military. Those funds support new platforms — a key generator of ATE business including the F-35, the P-8, the EA-18G Growler and the new KC-46A tanker, as well as unmanned aerial systems (UAS), said Byron Green, sales manager for end-to-end testers at AAI Corp. The unmanned systems market remains relatively untapped, said Green. The complexity of the unmanned systems “is increasing dramatically, and as a result they demand more testing. You can’t take them out and throw them away anymore,” he said.

Updating legacy equipment is another growing opportunity. With the military not building as many new aircraft as before, they are “extending the life of the existing aircraft which is causing problems with the old ATEs which need to be upgraded and fixed or replaced,” said McGuckin.

Military Systems

Instead of just repairing older equipment and maintaining the status quo, Clendenin said, “there is an impetus across the DoD to increase the commonality of the support system” for the equipment “so as their legacy systems become unsupportable they are migrating support requirements over to a more common solution.”

In fact, all of the services have developed or are developing such solutions including the Air Force’s Versatile Depot Automatic Test Station (VDATS) and the Navy’s Consolidated Automated Support System (CASS). “One of the things that we are specifically focused on is the emergence of Army requirements in this area (as well), which is somewhat atypical for the Boeing ground support business we have been focused primarily on aviation,” Clendenin said.

The Navy’s effort to upgrade CASS, the eCASS program, is expected to spark a wide range of advances in ATE infrastructure. Already, there are “lots of new standards being developed” for the system, which is slated to replace 600 existing CASS systems and build up to 400 new ones in the next 10 to 15 years, said Sami. “There are a lot of concepts which are going to be developed to go into the eCASS system in addition to what is already prevailing in the CASS units,” Sami said.

The system has focused a great deal of attention on the increasingly popular net-centric approach to testing. “All of our current test equipment (development) and even some of our legacy equipment makes accommodations for the integration of this” net-centric approach, said Green.

“There are two ways to go with net centric: You can store the knowledge of the bits of failures and so forth on the LRU [line replaceable unit] or you can inventory those failures on some central data base,” said Green. “Our test equipment is designed to accommodate” either approach.

Boeing has been involved in developing various net centric capabilities for the last decade. The company is now focused on using net-centricity to create a closed loop diagnostic system that would improve efficiency and effectiveness of maintenance. “We could utilize information from the prime platform level and all levels of maintenance off the prime platform to close the diagnostic loop (in order to) understand where we need to make improvements in diagnosis, which is another way of saying fault detection and fault isolation,” Clendenin said.

The effort addresses shortfalls of the onboard system, which “are notoriously bad for identifying… the failing component or components,” Clendenin said. Improvements in this area will ultimately reduce “the life cycle costs of the prime platform and certainly (reduce) the cost of the logistics tail related to supporting the prime platforms one of my major areas of focus,” he said. “We are getting to the point where we are able to do predictive diagnosis (or) prognosis so we can eliminate or minimize the need for unscheduled maintenance actions.”

The move to these so-called common core solutions by no means eliminates the need for customization. “There are really no off-the-shelf instruments. Most of them are customized depending on the users requirements,” said Sami. The end-users, including aircraft manufacturers and military organizations, rely on test vendors to sell and customize the equipment or increasingly maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) companies “who actually provide more technical assistance than test vendors” to do that job, said Sami.

The complexity of this effort is on clear display in the ongoing efforts to update legacy equipment. To begin with, there are in the military legacy systems “a huge population of test programs that already work the way the military wants them to work,” said McGucken. “They are looking for form, fit and function with the upgrade in most situations because they don’t want to make an investment in redoing all of those (test program sets),” he said.

In these cases, “we take existing COTS instruments that are out on the market then we build front-ends and type solutions to the things and put them into the form and fit that the customer needs.”

However, when more customization or tailoring is needed because the COTS instruments don’t exactly meet test requirements, developers can use “great standard platforms” including VXI-, PXI-, LXI-based solutions that address a variety of specific needs or preferences, said Kevin LeDuc, director of sales at EADS North America Test and Services.

For example, the PXI-based standard solution “is very popular for people who are building a commercial tester that they are going to run… for (only) a few years,” while an LXI-based system is suited to those “who need longer support and want to leverage the Ethernet channel.” On the other hand, developers may “want to leverage VXI channel, which was just upgraded with VXI 4.0, to have longer term support,” said LeDuc.

“Those are just the platforms. You can [also] utilize all sorts of instrumentation within the platforms themselves,” LeDuc said. “For example, we use PXI cards sometimes within our VXI platform, so all kinds of things can be leveraged within the standard platforms, but you have to focus on what exactly is the problem you are trying to solve.”

These standard platforms along with synthetic source instrumentation (SSI) are “really kind of a toolbox for instrument companies and ATE integrator,” said McGuckin. “Many of your customers have their own unique trend that they are trying to address,” he said.

These technologies, including synthetic instrumentation, are playing a critical role in the effort to develop high-density, low profile instruments that are capable of conducting multiple tests. “We used to have dedicated instruments that maybe focused on one particular application (such as) DME technology and transponder tests; now we’ve got multiple functions in one box all the time,” said Guy Hill, director of the Avionics Product Group at Aeroflex. This capability is made possible by synthetic instrumentation which is “a technology that lets you have a generic platform that will support multiple wave forms compared with dedicated circuitry in legacy designs with dedicated boards and circuits to do a particular function,” Hill said. The company has introduced “new [products] that are part of common platform focused on GPS,” said Hill. The GPSG-1000 GPS/Galileo Portable Positional Simulator, for example, is a multichannel satellite simulator that covers the legacy GPS as well as the new GPS, SBAS and Gallileo.

The effort to add functionality to testing systems is not only reducing the footprint of these systems but also in some instances revitalizing older applications, such as Joint Service Electronic Combat Systems Tester (JSECST), he said. In time, the tester has added the capability to do several tests formerly performed by small single use pieces of test equipment.

“Instead of just testing the electronic combat system, for instance, the radar warning receiver and the jammer, we are testing communications, navigation and wiring systems,” Green said. “All of that capability is (now) resident in JSECST.”

Moving forward, testing developers will be pressed to tackle the new challenges associated with the dramatic growth of high-speed communications between the aircraft and base and the increasing sophisticated avionics systems. This surge in communications will bring forward new technologies, said Sami

This trend is evident in the “overwhelming growth in data coming back from the battlefields that is being analyzed in real-time by commander in the field or even somebody in an airplane,” said Dan Walsh, marketing manager at Teradyne. This growth is spurring “communications between all of the avionics systems within in an airplane and in between them, when it comes to trying to analyze what is going on and provide the data so people can make decisions about how to proceed,” said Walsh. To address this, Teradyne is rolling out a high-speed subsystem “targeted specifically at dealing with the high-speed nature and unique communication requirements of these new systems” with surging speed demands and growing volume.

Next month: Cabin Systems

Avionics Magazine’s Product Focus is a monthly feature that examines some of the latest trends in different market segments of the avionics industry. It does not represent a comprehensive survey of all companies and products in these markets. Avionics Product Focus Editor Ed McKenna can be contacted at [email protected].


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