Special Report: Frequency requirements, lower costs driving VNA trends
The vector network analyzer (VNA) remains one of the most basic, yet pivotal, tools to test component specifications and verify design simulations in order to ensure that systems and their components are working properly together. All of today’s common technological networks—such as cellular/smartphone networks, to computer networks, Wi-Fi networks, or the cloud—were developed in large part thanks to engineers using the VNA as far back as the 1950s. Since that time, network analyzers have been used to identify problem areas, verify performance, and map coverage zones.
VNAs are used for different functions along the product development cycle, from design to finished assembly. This includes R&D engineers, manufacturing test engineers, component designers, and system designers verifying component performance and specifications, while VNAs are critical in manufacturing settings to ensure that all specifications are met before products hit the market.
Once primarily an R&D tool, VNAs became a mainstream manufacturing device with the explosion of wireless device deployment in the 1990s, and demand for VNAs with broader capabilities continued to surge with the enhanced integration of RF and microwave devices at the turn of the 21st century. This meant the evolution of two-port, swept-frequency VNAs into four-port network analyzers tailored for mass-production applications. This expanded to eight-, 12, 16, and 32-port systems throughout the 2000s, while VNA measurement capabilities likewise evolved.
In the current decade, network analyzer capabilities have continued to adapt to mobile demands, enabling their use in field operations to verify and troubleshoot deployed RF and microwave systems. Today’s test engineers are more and more commonly required to take reliable measurements in conditions far less ideal than on a lab bench, requiring a high-performance, handheld analyzer. Along the way, factors such as ease-of-use and portability became critical.
For manufacturers, several VNA demands have moved to the forefront this decade: the ability to test multiple/many devices at one test station; the ability to accurately test multiport devices in less time; and the need for smaller stations that test multiple wafer sites.
So now that we’ve recapped some of the history of vector network analyzers, let’s now dive deeper into current trends. We at Evaluation Engineering asked a number of leading electronic test & measurement instrument vendors about what they’re seeing as VNA trends. Here’s what they had to say.
Jason Chonko, applications marketing manager at SIGLENT Technologies: “The increased distribution of Wi-Fi and the IoT explosion has caused a wave of increased interest in RF instrumentation, but it is being balanced by the demand for end-use devices that have the lowest cost of ownership possible. Testing adds to the total cost of manufacturing, and so, this demand has put pressure on instrumentation manufacturers to rethink traditional RF testing, including VNAs. Not every application needs the highest degree of accuracy or precision, but they do all need dependable and reliable equipment. We think that the trend will be lower-cost VNA instrumentation with enough flexibility to perform critical RF measurements, like spectrum analysis and monitoring. This way, we can provide engineers with tools that can help them more effectively get their jobs done and stay under budget.”
Roger Denker, RF tools manager at MegiQ: “The IOT market is booming and many devices are wireless. A lot of non-RF engineers need to work out the RF and antenna part of their design. 5G and (massive) MIMO (multiple-input and multiple-output) devices need more and more VNA channels for developing MIMO antennas and phase arrays.”
Stan Oda, ShockLine VNA product manager at Anritsu: “VNAs are becoming smaller and more configurable solutions. Another trend is higher frequency requirements driven by new applications. Examples include 5G 28 GHz and 39 GHz designs that are starting to emerge more broadly in the marketplace, as well as MIMO antennas with beam steering that are becoming more prevalent.”
Taku Hirato, VNA product manager at Keysight Technologies: “As more and more functionality is integrated into single components, the number of ports on these components continues to expand and increase in complexity. Many applications require a more thorough multiport characterization of their devices. Examples include passive interconnect products for high-speed digital applications such as connectors or cable assemblies.”
Brian Walker, senior RF design engineer at Copper Mountain Technologies: “First, 5G brings with it a need to make accurate measurements at 28 and 38 GHz. Multiport measurement in these frequencies is useful for MIMO antennas with multiphase beam steering. Secondly, IoT brings many formerly digital-only newcomers to the RF arena. Developers must contend with an RF interface to their systems as they migrate into LORA, Zigbee, Bluetooth or 5G gateways. And third, RF developers want to focus on solutions to their problems and not be limited by test and measurement systems which worked well in the past but now lack features needed to simplify the testing process. Software which simplifies complex measurements will become more and more important.”
Now on the market
Those aforementioned vendors and many others are reacting to trends in the VNA market by continuously innovating with new and enhanced products. Here’s a look at some of the recent products and solutions offerings in this space.
Anritsu will bring its MS46524B series of Performance ShockLine 4-port VNAs to showcase at the upcoming DesignCon expo, held Jan. 29-31 in Santa Clara, CA. Packaged in a compact and rugged 3U chassis, the series has 30 microseconds per point sweep speed, and better than 120 dB dynamic range to 43.5 GHz, making it suitable for testing passive devices in engineering, manufacturing, and cost-sensitive education applications. According to Anritsu, its ShockLine VNAs feature 4-, 6-, 8-, 20-, and 43.5-GHz coverage, as well as E-band coverage in the smallest form factors on the market. They are all compact, robust instruments without fragile screens or keypads, so they can withstand the rigors of everyday use in production and lab environments. They share the same software across the entire family for ease of use and program compatibility, for more efficient test environments. The series offers typical options such as domain for signal path fault detection, and advanced time domain for signal integrity analysis, including eye diagrams and crosstalk measurements. Among the hardware options for the 8.5 GHz MS4652xB are direct access loops and bias tees.
“Our ShockLine family of VNAs are addressing these trends via a unique architecture that employs patented nonlinear transmission line ShockLine technology, which enables high-frequency measurement performance at an economical cost in flexible and compact configurations,” Oda said.
SIGLENT’s latest VNA release is the SVA1015X, which is based on the company’s SSA3000X series of superheterodyne spectrum analyzers. It retains its ease-of-use, but with the option to add VNA capabilities. It features a spectrum analyzer that operates from 9 kHz to 1.5 GHz and the optional VNA can provide S11 and S21 data from 10 MHz to 1.5 GHz. One compact instrument can be used to debug transmitters, characterize antennas, monitor broadcasts and transmission/reflection characterization of RF components. A simple button press switches the operating modes. Chonko said the most unique feature of the SVA1015X is that ease-of-use, stating, “It features a new 10” capacitive touchscreen, integrated web browser for remote control, and supports keyboard/mouse controls, but uses the same GUI as our spectrum analyzer line. The learning curve is very short with this class of product.” Along with the VNA option, other options the SVA1015X offers include an EMI measurement kit for electromagnetic precompliance testing, a digital modulation analysis kit for decoding ASK/FSK signals, a distance-to-fault option for troubleshooting cables and adapters, and the advanced measurement kit for broadcast measurements.
Copper Mountain Technologies has launched its new FET1854 extenders, which have a frequency from 18 to 54 GHz. This product is an addition to the existing CobaltFx mmWave frequency extension system already used by many telecommunications and consumer electronics companies. Anchored by a 2- or 4-port 9 or 20 GHz USB VNA, CobaltFx includes extenders in multiple frequency bands: 18 to 54 GHz, 50 to 75 GHz, 60 to 90 GHz, and 75 to 110 GHz. Frequency extension is a standard software feature, while time domain conversion, time domain gating, embedding, and de-embedding also come standard.
“With the launch of the new FET1854 extenders, the CobaltFx system will allow engineers to build a scalable and affordable 5G testing solution,” Walker said. “Our network analyzers offer metrology-grade measurements at very affordable prices. This allows even small companies to “extend their reach” with our VNAs. We focus on VNAs only and leave computer design to the computer designers. Our equipment performs precise RF measurements which are then passed to an external computer for processing through a USB interface. Our equipment will last for many years, while the computer will become obsolete and need to be replaced within a matter of months.”
While Keysight plans to unveil a new VNA solution at DesignCon and is keeping its details under wraps until then, its most recent offering in this field is its M9376A PXIe VNA, which has a frequency range of 300 kHz to 26.5 GHz.
Netherlands-based MegiQ’s VNAs are stocked by Saelig (Fairport, NY), which is currently promoting two recent products from the Dutch vendor. MegiQ’s VNA-0460 is a 6GHz, 2-port VNA that is USB-driven with PC software. Meanwhile, the MegiQ VNA-0460e is a 6GHz 3-port VNA with built-in Bias-T and Bias voltage/current generator. MegiQ’s Denker said his company MegiQ is the only vendor that offers calibration kits for UFL connector-based instruments and balanced instruments, adding that MegiQ VNA is out-of-the-box ready to work, including adapters and learning tools for developing IoT antennas.
Vector network analyzers are typically considered difficult to use by novices, yet experts might be reluctant to see any changes in operation. We asked these vendors about their thoughts on ease-of-use issues in VNAs.
Chonko, SIGLENT: “With VNAs, calibration is critical. The SVA features on-screen prompts that perform a guided calibration. This instructs the user on the proper process steps to ensure success. To help minimize the learning curve for operation, the SVA front panel and user interface are nearly identical to our popular spectrum analyzer products and the on-board web-interface is identical to the front panel display. Remote control of the instrument is identical to front panel use.”
Mike Resso, PLTS solutions manager at Keysight: “This knowledge gap between novice and experts is exactly what Keysight recognized 15 years ago and began to invest in the development of physical layer test system (PLTS) technology. The VNA calibration was extremely challenging for digital design engineers without a microwave engineering background, so the whole industry of high-speed digital designers needed an easier way to use a VNA. Calibration, Smith charts, de-embedding, and reference plane rotation were just a few examples of many difficult test and measurement methods for using VNAs. Now, there are complete high-speed digital labs worldwide that utilize VNAs via the PLTS user interface. Creating productive test and measurement technology centers with PLTS has translated directly into faster design cycles, earlier time-to-market and superior products.”
Bill Rosas, president and CTO of Signal Microwave: “Have a known good device available in the lab. This “golden standard” can be used to verify the VNA is not the issue or troubleshoot issues where the VNA system is suspect. This includes cables, adapters, poor calibration, drift, settings left changed by previous users, and other issues that can occur with a system as complicated as a VNA.”
Walker, Copper Mountain Technologies: “VNAs are tools to solve RF problems. It is expected that the user interface will evolve over time to allow “solution-focused” measurements. New users will embrace an approach which makes their measurements easier. At the same time, we will always provide the means to make general measurements that an “expert” requires.”
Oda, Anritsu: “We regularly add features to our software to help users optimize ShockLine VNAs and create more efficient test environments that meet specific test requirements. We have a unique feature borrowed from the Anritsu handheld instruments called easyTest, which is a step-by-step graphical tool that guides users through measurement procedures. Expert users can create easyTest scripts on a ShockLine VNA so that less experienced users can navigate complex VNA measurements for improved efficiencies.”
In September, Market Research Future published a research report that forecasted the VNA market value over 2018 to 2023. The report said the global VNA market value is expected to reach nearly $458 million by 2023.
The report states: “The vector network analyzer market is estimated to grow phenomenally during the forecast period. The global market is primarily driven on account of declining popularity of scalar network analyzer. Moreover, the market thrives on the back of its extensive application in automotive, electronic manufacture and communication sectors.”
The report cites strong recent VNA market growth over the past decade is due to increasing demand for 3G and 4G technologies, along with market players striving to get ahead in their product development strategies and long-term vision. The report goes on to say: “It is safe to assume that the vector network analyzer market is expected to grow substantially due to increasing adoption of Internet of things and upcoming 5G technology. Design and development of devices used for 5G applications create an opportunity for VNAs. Another growing application in which VNAs play a crucial role is connected-car designs. Owing to these factors, the market is set to expand considerably during the forecast period.”
Market Research Future named the following vendors as “prominent players” in the VNA market going forward: Keysight (U.S.), Rohde & Schwarz (Germany), Anritsu (Japan), Transcom Instruments (China), Copper Mountain Technologies (U.S.), National Instruments (U.S.), OMICRON Lab (Austria), GS Instrument Co. (Korea), Chengdu Tianda Instrument Equipment (China), HUBER+SUHNER. (Switzerland), and AWT Global LLC (U.S.).EE
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