ATE Market Gets More Crowded

Intel, National Instruments join the fray as other companies develop their own.

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Over the years, the automatic test equipment (ATE) industry has undergone a dramatic shakeout. In fact, the ATE industry has shrunk from about a dozen major vendors several years ago to just three sizable companies today. There is also a smattering of smaller ATE players in the market.

In other words, the big ATE vendors became bigger and the mid-sized players were gobbled up. The consolidation also left chipmakers with fewer choices in terms of ATE vendors and test platforms in the market.

But suddenly, the landscape is once again changing in ATE, which, in turn, could give test managers some new and different options. In perhaps the most intriguing event, Intel is entering the test market. Intel is offering foundry customers the use of its own, internally built tester. In addition, National Instruments is entering the commercial ATE market. And separately, a number of companies continue to expand their modular instrument lines based on the PXI standard, enabling chipmakers to build their own full-blown testers.

So what are the options today? Test managers can take the traditional steps to expand their ATE capacity—buy a commercial ATE system; utilize a tester at an OSAT; or crank up their existing and under-utilized testers.

Going forward, test managers can also explore some new options—check out Intel’s test offering; look at the new ATE player in the market; and build a tester from scratch. In fact, building a tester is a viable path, as Altera, Intel, Micron and TI have built their own ATE over the years.

The best option depends upon on the requirements and cost. “Companies like Altera and Intel know enough about their technology. So, they can build their own testers,” said G. Dan Hutcheson, president of VLSI Research. “But if you build your own tester, you have to be as good as the commercial guys. It also takes a lot of discipline to build a tester yourself. So, most find it’s better to buy a tester from a commercial ATE supplier.”

Buying vs. building
In the early days of the semiconductor industry, chipmakers built nearly all of their own fab equipment. In those days, the merchant IC-equipment industry was non-existent. For example, Fairchild, TI and other chip pioneers built their own ATE. Then, the tide began to turn in 1960, when Teradyne was formed and began to sell commercial ATE. Other merchant ATE vendors soon followed, prompting most IC makers to scrap their internal test efforts and buy commercial ATE.

But over the years, some chipmakers attempted to build their own testers. Some succeeded. Many failed. “Those who have decided to try and build their own ATE systems have been challenged by the ongoing R&D investment required to meet device roadmap requirements. There are also service, training, and ongoing support issues,” said Dave Armstrong, director of business development at Advantest, a commercial ATE supplier.

“It is not easy to build a tester from scratch. In order to achieve a high level of performance at a reasonable cost, we use many custom integrated circuits in our testers. Those who try to use off-the-shelf components have a big challenge in front of them. Most, if not all, end up with a performance level which is limited,” Armstrong said. “In addition, the hardware investment is often a fraction of the total cost of building a tester. Software development is typically a much larger investment.”

So not surprisingly, when it comes to the question of buying versus building a tester, ATE vendors believe the best option is obvious. “Buying commercial ATE is a lower risk path,” he said. “You get a total solution.”

Still, there are a few holdouts from the past, namely FPGA giant Altera. “Back in 1988, Altera was encountering a similar dilemma as other companies,” said Terry Barrette, director of tester and manufacturing engineering at Altera. (Barrette joined Altera in 2011.) “At that time, cost of test was very high. The type of tester Altera needed wasn’t available. And if you did buy a high pin count tester, it was extremely expensive.”

So at the time, Altera built its own tester. And today, to test many of its parts, Altera continues to use its own, internally built ATE, which is a Windows-based, structural tester. “We still find it cost effective to build our own testers, but we are in a unique situation. For us, it works,” Barrette said.

Still, Altera is beginning to evaluate commercial ATE. “The cost of the tester has come way down. The capabilities are more flexible,” she said. “There are certain areas in which we are evaluating commercial ATE to meet some of our requirements. That doesn’t mean we are moving away from our own, in-house proprietary tester.”

Another chipmaker, Texas Instruments, took a different path. In the late 1990s, TI developed a tester, dubbed the Very Low Cost Tester (VLCT). Originally, the VLCT was a digital-centric machine that tested DSPs and baseband processors. Over time, the VLCT also provided mixed-signal and analog test capabilities. “Fifteen years ago, ATE costs were rapidly increasing. Test costs were simply becoming unacceptable,” said Michael Jarboe, test cell infrastructure manager at TI. “Building this tester at the time was important in enabling the competitiveness of the products we supplied.”

Over time, TI’s test strategy evolved. The company continues to use the VLCT, but it also began buying commercial ATE several years ago. “Today, many businesses can be served by commercially available ATE,” he said. “For example, our embedded processing business can leverage the higher multi-site capability of the new generation of ATE to achieve reduced test cost.”

Open and modular ATE
Altera and TI have no plans to sell their in-house ATE to the commercial market. Another chipmaker, Intel, is taking a different approach. Intel’s interest in test surfaced more than a decade ago, when Intel, Renesas, Advantest and others formed an ATE consortium. The so-called Semiconductor Test Consortium (STC) hoped to reduce the soaring cost of test by devising a modular and open architecture for the ATE industry.

At the time, though, the STC failed to get broad support from the industry. This, in turn, derailed the organization and put an end to the idea of creating an open platform in the proprietary ATE test world. What did evolve from the STC was the development of the T2000, a modular and digital tester. In turn, Advantest assumed control of the T2000 and continues to sell the tester today.

Over time, Intel took many of the same concepts from the STC and built its own next-generation, modular tester. Intel’s tester, dubbed the High Density Modular Test (HDMT) platform, ranges from a desktop engineering system to a full-blown tester.

Intel uses the HDMT platform to reduce its own test costs by twofold. Now, Intel is making the test platform available to its foundry customers, which, in turn, could get a leg up on the competition. “This platform doesn’t come with just hardware,” said Sunit Rikhi, vice president of the Technology and Manufacturing Group at Intel and general manager of Intel’s Custom Foundry unit. “It’s an entire methodology that we’ve built (in terms of) how we test our complex products in engineering and take them rapidly into production.”

There is a catch, however. HDMT is only available to Intel’s foundry customers. Intel won’t sell the tester in the merchant market. The tester from Intel is a modular but proprietary system. The same is true with the testers from the commercial ATE vendors. The question is whether test managers want an open and modular tester, as once envisioned by the STC.

In fact, for some time, members from the PXI Systems Alliance have been developing open and modular ATE systems based on PXI technology. The PXI (PCI eXtensions for Instrumentation) standard defines the specifications for modular, PC-based instruments for use in a multitude of applications, such as military, communications, consumer and industrial. PXI makes use of PCI Express technology as the backplane, enabling bandwidths from 132 MB/s to 12 GB/s.

In theory, by assembling select PXI modules into a system, a chipmaker could build its own semiconductor tester from scratch. For example, a chipmaker could buy a parametric measurement unit (PMU) from a number of PXI vendors. The PMU enables DC parametric functions. Then, the chipmaker would buy other pieces and integrate them.

“You could purchase a good chassis,” Altera’s Barrette said. “If you had your own software, you could put the building blocks together and build your own tester. This is all very possible.”

Still, there are some tradeoffs when building your own tester, said Luke Schreier, senior manager of automated test marketing at National Instruments, a supplier of PXI instruments. “If you are in a conventional space like microprocessors and memory, Advantest and Teradyne are building testers that are suited to the problem,” Schreier said.

But for some applications, it might make sense for a chipmaker to build its own tester. “Ultimately, it’s an economic decision,” he said. “The reward that comes from building your own tester is flexibility. You can optimize your tester for exactly what you need and not pay for a single pin you don’t want.”

Still, many chipmakers do not have the resources and expertise to build their own PXI-based testers. To help solve that issue, National Instruments has recently entered the ATE field by rolling out its own, full-blown tester. The tester is a PXI-based system designed for use in testing analog, mixed-signal and RF devices.

The system can also be reconfigured to support various applications. “We represent a different choice,” he said. “It’s a hybrid approach between building versus buying. You can take the panels off and put any modules and instruments in there. It’s designed around helping people build their own test system.”

In fact, two chipmakers, IDT and Infineon, are among the first customers for the new ATE systems from National Instruments. Time will tell if the concept catches on. But clearly, it gives test managers something new to think about in an otherwise dwindling ATE market.