Looking Back at Board Test

The market has seen change and consolidation.

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Printed circuit board testing has been around as long as printed circuit boards, also known as printed circuit assemblies and printed wiring boards. PCB technology started in the early 20th century with Thomas Edison and other inventors. As boards shrink to fit inside wearable gadgets and other products with compact form factors, PCB test equipment vendors are addressing new challenges.

Boards are subjected to automated optical inspection for their inner layers, automated X-ray inspection to find manufacturing defects, and electrical test, basically divided into functional test and in-circuit test. There is also bare-board test, to check for opens and shorts.

Let’s climb into the Electronics Time Machine and look back at what’s happened in the board test market over the decades.

Boston-based Teradyne expanded beyond semiconductor device testing in the early 1970s into test systems for electronic subassemblies. In 1987 it acquired Zehntel, a supplier of board test equipment in Walnut Creek, Calif., in a $75 million stock-swap transaction.

General Radio Company, founded in Cambridge, Mass., in 1915, relocated in the 1950s to West Concord and entered the PCB test equipment market, which it led for several decades. GenRad, as it was later known, held 24% of the worldwide board test equipment market in 1988. Competitors Teradyne and Hewlett-Packard had market shares of 19% and 13%, respectively. In fourth place was Schlumberger-Factron, the board test arm of Fairchild Test Systems, a Schlumberger subsidiary.

The “big three” went at it in the 1980s and 1990s, trying to be competitive and innovative in board test. In 1999 HP spun off Agilent Technologies, which contained the HP board and chip test lines, among other products. A decade later, Agilent’s Electronic Measurement business, containing its semiconductor and board test products and services, was in decline, posting fiscal 2009 revenue of $2.257 billion, down from $3.228 billion the previous year. The segment rebounded slightly the following year, with $2.784 billion in revenue.

The big development in the 21st century was Teradyne’s 2001 acquisition of GenRad for approximately $177 million in stock and the assumption of $85 million in corporate debt. The GenRad operations were integrated into Teradyne’s Assembly Test Division, and all of the merged company’s operations in the Boston metropolitan area were gathered into Teradyne’s new headquarters in North Reading, Mass., in 2006.

Teradyne’s System Test segment posted 2016 backlog of $117.8 million, up from $108.8 million in 2015. Those figures are dwarfed by the company’s backlog in semiconductor test equipment, which was $575.7 million last year and $472.9 million in 2015. Production board test is one line of business within System Test.

These days, Teradyne is competing in board test with Keysight Technologies (inheritor of the HP/Agilent board test line), Astronics Test Systems, Italy’s SPEA, and Taiwan’s Test Research Inc.

The board test market is greatly changed from the last century, although Keysight and Teradyne remain strong competitors for in-circuit board testers. And so it goes.