Agilent Automates Component Testing

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- OFC2001 -- An announcement that hit the wires this morning indicates that Agilent Technologies Inc. (NYSE: A) is making a bid for world domination of passive component test and measurement (see Agilent Releases Analysis Software).

It's launching the Photonic Foundation Library (PFL), a software suite that talks to test modules to enable them to perform test functions in sequence. From a manufacturer's point of view, the PFL makes it possible to crunch something out of production much faster, and that leads to big cost savings.

"I learnt from a customer that the contribution of the test cost to the total cost [of the product] can be tens of per cent. In other industries that would be considered an unhealthy share of the cost," says Stefan Löffler, product marketing manager of Agilent's Optical Communication Measurement Division.

Löffler contends recent innovations -- the PFL in combination with new types of test module -- can reduce testing cost by a factor of about 50, even though the test equipment itself has become a lot more expensive.

Agilent claims the PFL gives superior results when used with Agilent's own test modules. That's because it has built knowledge of the dynamic behaviors of its tunable lasers and optical power meters into the software, to ensure high accuracy at faster data acquisition speeds.

"Using or not using the library makes a difference to the quality of the tests," says Löffler. Although the PFL can work with test modules from other vendors, that would throw away one of the big advantages of using it, he says.

Right now, the PFL interoperates with modules from Agilent and National Instruments. There's little incentive for Agilent to support modules from other vendors. As things stand, it's a cunning way to increase the amount of money each customer spends with Agilent.

Agilent claims that the PFL has a third advantage -- ease of use. It integrates with graphical programming environments, such as LabVIEW or Lab Windows. Instead of working with software code, the user simply calls up a function from the list and inputs the required parameters. The PFL can spot any mistakes using built-in error-handling and automatic parameter checking functions. This keeps it simple enough that it's possible for nontechnical staff to create and run test routines, according to Agilent. "It's very rare to find someone who's both a test and measurement expert and a software expert," Löffler notes.

It's worth pointing out that Agilent isn't the only vendor that's seen the benefit of integrating and automating test gear. Exfo Electro-Optical Engineering Inc. (Nasdaq: EXFO; Toronto: EXF) says it is developing a system that both checks and adjusts the alignment of DWDM components (see Testing Gear Breeds Speed). However, it's still on the drawing board.

— Pauline Rigby, senior editor, Light Reading http://www.lightreading.com

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