Automated Test Equipment (ATE) Market - Types, Objectives and a Global Scenario

Published On : Aug 04, 2014

Automatic test equipments (ATE) refer to machines or technology designed to perform tests on different devices for performance and capabilities. The device being tested is referred to as device under test (DUT) and can be anything ranging from a hardware, software or electronics device, to an avionics or semiconductor device. ATEs make use of automated information technology and control systems to rapidly evaluate and measure the performance of the device under test. 
Depending upon the equipment being tested, the operations undertaken by automatic test equipments as well as their make-up can be both simple as well as complex. Most commonly, ATE testing is employed in radars, wireless communication and during and after the manufacturing of electronic devices. Specialized semiconductor ATEs also exist for testing semiconductor devices. 
ATEs are frequently and quite notably used in the semiconductor manufacturing industry for testing analog integrated circuits, memory chips and microprocessors. In the electronics industry, ATEs are used for diagnosing the operations of circuit boards, electronics components and avionics systems.   
While simple applications such as the testing of resistance and voltage in electronics may require the use of uncomplicated ATEs such as volt-ohm meters, complex applications such as automatically running dozens of parametric and functional diagnostics for high-level electronics such as wafer testing for integrated circuits or semiconductor device fabrication require complex ATE systems with several test mechanisms. 
The objective of automatic test equipments is to run diagnostics and promptly confirm whether a DUT is working properly and if not, find defects. Such quick tests save manufacturing costs and prevent a defective product from entering into the market. As ATEs are used for a wide array of DTUs, each testing follows a different procedure.
The testing generally takes place in manufacturing units where high-speed, automated testing is important to monitor devices under different sets of conditions. ATEs undertake testing by using a variety of mechanisms such as optical examination, X-ray inspection, functional circuit testing, to name a few.   
The actual operations undertaken by a typical ATE can be understood from the example of an ATE designed for testing assembled circuit boards. A typical ATE for such systems employs optical inspection units which are capable of scanning each individual board for soldering issues such as poor quality joints, shorts or bridges. The optical inspection unit may include high resolution cameras that can also detect missing or incorrectly placed components. A three-dimensional X-ray inspection unit may also be included in the system to discover issues that are not visible with common optical inspection systems. 
A variety of types of automatic test equipments also commonly include robotic handlers that can locate and position each part being tested correctly. The handlers may re-position, move or rotate each device many times before the testing is completed, depending on the type of device being tested. Devices such as silicon wafers, for instance, contain many separate semiconductor devices that need testing. 
What drives the global ATE market?
Though many industries benefit from automatic test equipments, it is the semiconductor manufacturing industry that exploits the maximum benefits of ATE technology. ATEs serve this industry in three ways: for testing packaged dies, for characterizing frequency and other performance related features of the device being tested and for testing fabricated wafers in sorting operations. ATEs have been an integral part of the semiconductor manufacturing industry since the late 1960s. 
The ATE industry has especially seen enormous growth since the introduction of personal computers in 1980s, at an estimated CAGR of 18.6% over the years. However, this industry also has its set of problems. 
Although the industry has observed steady growth over the years, the sales have been quite cyclic due to the nature of its major end-user, the semiconductor manufacturers. The industry faces issues such as fast growing and rapidly changing technologies, limited availability of skilled workforce, high capital investment required and economic fluctuation on the global front.