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Automated Test Equipment (ATE) and Structural Testing


Maximizing Accuracy, Reliability and Speed in PCB Assembly Test


ATE 101


You've just designed a cutting-edge electronic device packed with innovative features and ready to take the world by storm. But before it hits the market, there's a crucial step - testing. How do you ensure your creation works flawlessly, meets all quality standards, and doesn't become a nightmare for users? The answer lies in the use of Automated Test Equipment (ATE), a powerful tool in electronic testing.


What is Structural Testing?


Structural test primarily focuses on the physical connections and structures of a Printed Circuit Board Assembly (PCBA) (unlike its counterpart, functional testing, which verifies if an electronic assembly performs its intended function). Structural test validates that components are accurately placed, soldered, and interconnected, free from defects like shorts, opens, or incorrect component values.


Types of Structural Test


In-Circuit Test (ICT)

ICT Programming
  • ICT inspects each component on a PCBA individually. It achieves this through direct physical contact, often using a bed-of-nails fixture or a probe.
  • ICT can check for component values, polarity, presence/absence, shorts, opens, and various connectivity anomalies.
  • It can also perform some powered tests, such as analog and digital IC tests. This ensures that components are correctly placed and exhibit a certain degree of functional integrity.
  • A drawback of ICT is its requirement for a distinct custom fixture for each unique board design, which can potentially increase costs and production time.
Boundary Scan (JTAG) Test Boundary-Scan-Test


  • Boundary Scan is a sophisticated technique designed to test the interconnects on digital boards and integrated circuits (ICs). It does this without physical access to the board's components.
  • This method is found in the IEEE 1149.1 standard, commonly known as Joint Test Action Group or JTAG.
  • Boundary Scan enabled ICs have additional pins that can monitor and manipulate neighboring components, forming a "scan chain."
  • This test can detect open and short circuits.
  • Boundary Scan is ideal for PCBAs characterized by high-density components with limited or no physical access.
Flying Probe Test (FPT) Flying Probe Test Image
  • Flying Probe Testers are versatile machines with multiple movable test probes. These probes can quickly test various points on a board point.
  • One key benefit of FPT compared to ICT is that it doesn't require a bed-of-nails fixture. This makes FPT more cost-effective for testing smaller batches or prototypes.
  • FPT adeptly checks for parameters like shorts, opens, resistance, capacitance, and more.
  • While FPT might trail ICT in speed, its inherent flexibility and adaptability render it a favored choice in specific scenarios.


ATE Components


An ATE setup consists of several essential components:

1. Controller - serves as the central processing unit of an ATE system. It manages the test process, communicates with the device-under-test, coordinates the operation of various instruments, and executes the test sequences.

2. Test Instruments - some instruments include: measurement systems, power supplies, signal generators. 

3. Software - part of an ATE that handles the automation. It creates and executes test sequences, gathers data, and generates detailed reports.

4. Test Fixture - securely holds and connects devices or circuit assemblies to the automated test equipment.


Benefits of Using an ATE


ATEs give manufacturers confidence in their production quality, allowing them to consistently ship high-quality products by catching manufacturing defects before it's too late.

1. Accuracy and Consistency - ATEs execute tests accurately and consistently, eliminating human errors

2. Efficiency and Speed - manual testing is slow and inefficient, often causing delays in product shipments. An ATE reduces manual testing procedures to mere minutes or even seconds, ensuring timely product deliveries

3. Comprehensive Testing ATEs allow manufacturers to evaluate their electronic devices' functionality, performance, and reliability across various test scenarios

4. Improved Product Quality - using an ATE, you can catch defects at a stage with minimal correction costs. This reduces the chances of costly product recalls or warranty claims.

Comprehensive testing with ATEs is a critical electronic device manufacturing process component. It's a proactive strategy for identifying and addressing issues early and delivering products that consistently meet or exceed consumer expectations. As the complexity of electronic devices continues to evolve, ATEs remain indispensable for quality control and ensuring devices perform seamlessly in the real world.


ATE Applications Across Industries


ATEs are essential tools in various industries. In semiconductors, they ensure integrated circuits meet performance and functionality specs. ATEs test avionics, radar, and missile systems for reliability in aerospace and defense. The automotive sector relies on ATEs for components like ECUs and sensors. Telecommunications uses them to evaluate networking equipment, while healthcare employs ATEs to verify medical device accuracy. For consumer electronics, ATEs are essential to meet quality standards in devices like smartphones and tablets.


16 Key Considerations When Choosing an ATE


Defining your objectives, establishing a realistic budget, and assessing various factors are essential when considering an ATE. These factors include speed, coverage, scalability, flexibility, reliability, regulatory compliance, cost of ownership, user-friendliness, test interface quality, safety features, and support for prototyping, research, and development.

Test Objectives Image Budget Test -Coverage Test-Throughput

Test Objectives


Define the key functions and features for testing, such as power consumption, voltage levels, digital logic, analog signals, and communication interfaces.



Set a realistic budget that covers initial purchase costs, ongoing expenses, maintenance, and potential upgrades.

Test Coverage


Evaluate the extent of test coverage needed to examine devices thoroughly. Comprehensive coverage is crucial for identifying defects and ensuring product quality.



Determine your expected testing volume and product mix

Scalability Flexibility Reliability Integration



Anticipate future testing volume growth. Choose a scalable ATE system to avoid future equipment replacement or upgrades.



Opting for a flexible test tool ensures that you can adapt to different testing scenarios and evolving testing procedures without requiring frequent equipment changes.


An ATE system with high uptime remains operational when needed, minimizing disruptions to production schedules and reducing test costs.



Confirm that the tester seamlessly integrates with your existing equipment and software, such as Manufacturing Execution Systems (MES) or data analysis tools.

Production-Space Data-Management Maintenance-Support Regulatory-Compliance

Space Requirements


How much space is available for the tester on your production floor or lab? Are there any restrictions at the entrance that could hinder moving the tester into the space?

Test Data Management


The capability to save and send test data to the cloud for quality control and analysis to aid decision-making and process improvement.

Maintenance & Support

Ease of maintenance and the availability of support services, such as easy access to replacement parts and responsive customer support, can minimize cost and downtime.

Regulatory Compliance


If your industry has specific compliance standards, ensure the tester meets these standards and can provide the necessary certifications.

Total-Cost-of-Ownership ATE-User-Interface ATE-Safety Prototype-and-RD

Total Cost of Ownership


Consider the total cost of ownership, including the initial investment, maintenance, calibration, potential upgrades, savings accrued from decreased labor costs and warranty returns.

User Interface


The system's user interface should be intuitive and user-friendly, reducing the learning curve for users and minimizing the potential for user input errors.


Ensure that the ATE incorporates safety features to protect equipment and personnel during testing operations.

Prototype and R&D Support


If testing is necessary during your prototype or research and development stages, ensure that the tester can provide support for these phases.


Understanding the essentials of Automated Test Equipment (ATE) is fundamental in today's complex electronics landscape. ATEs ensure the quality and reliability of electronic components and contribute significantly to efficiency, cost-effectiveness, and customer satisfaction. The features and considerations outlined here are crucial for manufacturers and engineers, from comprehensive testing and data management to scalability and cost-effectiveness. As technology advances, ATE remains at the forefront, empowering us to create and deliver electronics that meet the highest standards of excellence. Explore the possibilities, embrace automation, and unlock the potential of ATE to drive innovation and elevate your electronic testing processes.