HP’s Barnholt Challenges Semiconductor Industry

Edward W. (Ned) Barnholt, Chief Executive Officer of the as-yet-unnamed company that will be composed of Hewlett-Packard Company’s industry-leading test and measurement, components, chemical analysis and medical businesses, has challenged the semiconductor test-equipment industry to close the "test gap" between revolutionary system-on-a-chip (SOC) technology for consumer electronics and the production test equipment now being used to test SOC devices.

Barnholt implored test-equipment manufacturers to design lower-cost test systems that will meet high-volume SOC production demands and offer chip producers platform-independent software that accommodates multiple test technologies.

With semiconductor chip designers now designing hundreds of SOC-based electronic devices, the speed and quality of their production systems is expected to be hampered by test tools and techniques whose efficiency doesn’t match the production demands for these complex, integrated semiconductors. Increasingly prevalent SOC technology combines memory, analog, communications, high-speed interfaces and digital semiconductors on a single tiny chip. SOC technology, which is expected to drive competition within the semiconductor industry during the next decade, will enable Internet appliances, mobile phones, computers and other consumer electronics to be smaller, faster, cheaper and more reliable.

"Today, there looms a significant test gap -- a gulf between the kinds of SOCs that can be designed and what can be tested during high-volume production," Barnholt said. "There are tough problems that will require new thinking, new architectures and new tools. The answer to testing SOCs isn’t bigger, better stand-alone testers or cobbling together some combination of analog, digital and memory testers with hardware and software hooks."

During his keynote speech, Barnholt urged the semiconductor test industry to move toward flexible, general-purpose tester systems that incorporate multiple test methodologies while continuing to drive down the cost of test.

He suggested that automated test equipment (ATE) vendors reverse old practices and begin to work together to create compatible test-system-transparent designs that allow chip producers to transport the intellectual property of a chip, and their plans to test it, from one vendor’s test platform to another’s.

"The ATE industry must begin making test plans transportable to reduce the time and money it takes to create software programs," said Barnholt. "We should develop industry standards for extracting, transporting and integrating test plans."

In addressing the need to drive down the cost of test, Barnholt recommended that semiconductor test equipment companies do a better job of using modeling tools to stimulate both human and machine interfaces and get ahead of the curve in keeping pace with the increased complexity of the new chips.

Unless the ATE industry resolves some of the major hurdles around architectures and tools for SOCs within two years, the "Holy Grail" of creating a single-chip mobile devices will stall, he said. Today’s most sophisticated cell phones have four or more semiconductor chips. The goal of a one-chip cell phone will require a major shift in the types of tests done. Today’s semiconductors undergo what’s known as functional testing to determine if they have been manufactured correctly, however, one-chip phones and other SOC-based electronics of the future will need to be tested as they are supposed to function in the hands of consumers.

Making the leap in chip testing to being able to test functionality while reducing the cost of test will be one of the ATE industry’s greatest challenges for the next five years, Barnholt said.

For more information, visit Hewlett Packard’s Web site at www.hp.com.