Test-instrument user community evolves

The test-instrument users of today may have little in common with earlier generations of test engineers. That's the conclusion of John Tucker, product marketing manager at Keithley, who has been in the field talking to Keithley customers and EE-Evaluation Engineering readers.

One out of five EEs today has started his or her career within the last ten years, he said in a recent phone interview. And unlike dedicated test engineers of the past—whose numbers are dwindling due to cutbacks, attrition, and retirement—today's engineers may need only occasional access to test-and-measurement equipment. Furthermore, he said, today's engineers tend to be more software- than hardware-oriented.

And because of the aforementioned reduction of experienced test engineers, younger engineers lack access to mentors who could have helped them ensure test accuracy and efficiency. In addition, Tucker said, even if experienced people are available, they “can't teach younger engineers the ropes because of time-to-market pressures—cycle time has shrunk 13% over the last three years.”

Furthermore, Tucker said, a growing number of electronic test-equipment users have no electronics background at all—they may be biotechnologists, electrochemists, physicists, or materials scientists, for example. Such users have differing expectations of what they want from test instruments—particularly with regard to user interfaces. What they want is not to become proficient in the underlying technology behind their instruments—instead, they want “faster time to answers.”

And because of their familiarity with smartphones and tablets, he said, “younger users are influenced by icon based interfaces.”

Consequently, Tucker said, “Manufacturers must rethink instrumentation going forward—simplifying the interface, speeding the measurement process, and freeing users to focus on work.” In short, users want to be able to use an instrument without needing a manual. And in the academic environment, Tucker said, professors comment that they don't have time to teach students how to use instruments.

Tucker cited some specific comments he's received about Keithley's source-measure units (SMUs): “Can't you reduce the number of buttons and menu structures on the front panel?” “I can use a DMM without a manual. I can use a power supply without a manual. Why can't I use an SMU without a manual?” “I'm a materials expert, not an SMU or software specialist. I just want to use the instrument and get on with my work.”

To address such concerns, Keithley has developed its trademarked “Touch, Test, Invent” technology, which it applies to its Model 2450 SourceMeter SMU instrument, introduced today. Tucker described the new SMU as an instrument with capacitive touch-screen that supports multipoint, pan-pinch-zoom-swipe operation. “It's intuitive enough for novice SMU users and versatile enough for experienced users,” he said.

He described the instrument as a four-quadrant SMU that integrates multiple sourcing and measurement capabilities (V, I, and R). He added that the icon-based menu system can reduce configuration steps by as much as 50%. “Hit the icon and start configuring,” he said. He added that context-sensitive help functions minimize the need to consult a manual, and what he called “QuickSet” functions simplify instrument setup—as a voltmeter, ammeter, ohmmeter, or power supply, for example.

Keithley, with the new instrument, Tucker concluded, “is driving the features we think your readers will want to see on their instruments going forward.”

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