Exciting times for the world of engineering

We are living in a time of enormous and exciting change, driven and enabled by the new types of products being conceived and new ways of bringing them to market

Test and measurement equipment suppliers are just one group among many that must adapt.

Connectivity – and wireless connectivity, in particular – is a major catalyst. We have seen great advances in computing and digital design, enabled by exponentially increasing chip density. Now, RF technologies enable us to connect all sorts of devices, from the tiniest smart sensors to hyperscale Cloud computing centres. Almost any application imaginable becomes possible.

Inventors of electronic products, increasingly, are application focused; their starting point is close to the problem, which is a great place to imagine a solution. Then, there is more help than ever before – from component suppliers and within open-source communities – for these “ideas people” to bring their solutions to life. Low-cost evaluation kits, reference designs, software examples, have all helped to break down skills barriers and help get projects started on the road to success. Small teams can now make bigger things happen than ever before, and of course the success of the maker movement is a fantastic example of how almost anyone with a vision can quickly build and demonstrate a prototype. We are seeing great ideas come forwards in fields like smart agriculture or location-based products like smart theft-prevention systems.

The “Value” and High-End Markets

One of the effects of all this is a shift in typical demands for test capability, from the time domain to the frequency domain. In the past, computing and logic have been at the forefront of development, but this is now changing with the increased use of RF technology to connect our devices. Today, just a few dollars buys a viable platform for prototyping a concept that could be almost any type of smart sensor, for example. It can be built, configured and customised easily using modules, and then for minimal extra outlay it can be connected wirelessly to other devices using technologies like Bluetooth®, ZigBee® or Wi-Fi®, and then on to the Cloud, which instantly creates a very powerful device. This is a major driver of the changes now happening in what we might call the “low-end” of the test and measurement equipment market.

Designers of this type of equipment are often small teams, or independent engineers, who need to invest carefully in as much test equipment as their budget can afford. Having said that, large corporations, also, are being very careful with their capital expenditure; they may have the option to consider renting or leasing, or using external test-house services, as alternatives. All must keep tight control over the costs of developing these types of products.

Competition between test-equipment suppliers is keen. Buyers are often looking to acquire multiple capabilities in each item of equipment. In the past, a scope has been a scope, a logic analyser has been a logic analyser, but we are now seeing these instruments consolidated. Our entry-level R&S RTB2000 oscilloscope is one example: we have not only taken advantage of IP developed for our high-end instruments, the falling prices of precision semiconductors, and our in-house, custom designed 10-bit ADCs to deliver high performance at a lower price point, but this instrument also has logic-analyser, protocol-analyser, waveform and pattern-generator modes, and a digital voltmeter.

As I said, market conditions here are competitive, and exciting for Rohde & Schwarz as we continue to build our presence. Although overall segment growth is probably in single figures, due in part to high customer expectations and low expenditure, we can grow our share quickly having had little presence in this area of the market until now. Our brand is built on technically advanced, high-quality products backed up by top-class support, and by applying the same principles to the value-instruments sector we expect to attract the type of customers who would like to have our equipment on their bench, but may in the past have felt it is beyond their budget. Fundamentally, they are looking for equipment that gives the confidence that it will remain dependable and accurate for the long-term. Ease of use is also important: today’s product developers are far less interested in becoming test-equipment experts, and are under more pressure than ever to simply get the job done.

At the other end of the scale, we can see that “high-end” equipment encompasses technologies like 5G, which is extremely complex, uses very high (millimetre-wave) frequencies, and involves building and testing large capacity, high-power multi-channel equipment. Other types of end-user equipment we could consider to be “high-end”, such as medical imaging, are pushing forward quickly in terms of capability, and demand extremely fast and accurate test and measurement.

Changing Support Scene

Product support is adapting, perhaps less in response to any perceived split between high-end and low-end equipment, and more due to changes in the way designers are going about their work. Today’s designers are working online all the time, and the younger engineers will often have multiple information streams active continuously, taking part in chat threads, forums to find the information they need as quickly as possible. Everyone expects to find help in a format that suits them, so we are developing a wide variety of online resources. Some of these are already quite familiar, such as seminars, webinars, online videos, but we are also creating new material that “cuts to the chase” more quickly – like quick application cards that give “what to do if” guidance, so users can quickly solve their immediate challenge and move onto the next. Of course, we are trying to do this without losing focus on material that takes a deeper dive, like application notes and white papers that help readers grasp the underlying principles.

It is worth noting that we have just opened a telephone support hotline in Asia, as we endeavour to provide the type of support we perceive is needed in any given region, rather than forcing a globalised model.

I have spent some 30 years in the test and measurement equipment business, and the RF knowhow here at Rohde & Schwarz is far beyond any I have seen before. Being a privately owned company is unusual, and enables us to commit to long-term goals in a way not usually seen in other organisations, where short-term financial targets can sometimes take precedence. Now, working to developing our position in the value instruments market is like being in a $2 billion start-up. On the other hand, the company is highly vertically integrated, which allows us to control many aspects of the value chain and maintain high product quality. I have been impressed by many aspects of the company since I have joined, including the design and manufacturing capabilities, and the customer technical support. In addition, Rohde & Schwarz is committed to developing tools to tackle the world’s cyber security challenges, and is embracing the opportunity to support the teaching of RF and communication theory in academia. From my point of view, education still seems to be heavily biased towards the time-domain disciplines, and this needs to change if the world is to gain enough RF knowledge to engineer our wireless future.

By drawing on high standards of engineering, with over 80 years of heritage, we aim to deliver high quality, reliability, ease of use, and extend these principles in the value equipment market.

About the Author

This article was written by Bob Bluhm, VP, Value Instruments at Rohde & Schwarz GmbH & Co. KG. Founded more than 80 years ago, Rohde & Schwarz is one of the world’s leading manufacturers of information and communications technology products for professional users. Initially focusing on RF engineering and RF applications in test and measurement, radiocommunications and broadcasting, the company has continually expanded its fields of activity over the past decades. In the meantime Rohde & Schwarz has also become one of Germany’s largest manufacturers of IT security products.