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25 Years Spectrum | Spectrum

25 Jahre Years
25 years ago, the company Spectrum started out as a two-person company that developed custom-built solutions and, in 1991, introduced an ISA board as first part of its own product line. Today, the team is composed of 18 staff members. In the fast-paced high-tech industry, Spectrum attaches great importance to personal relationships and continuity.
25 Years high-speed high-resultion instrumentation

25 years ago, the company Spectrum started out as a two-person company that developed custom-built solutions and, in 1991, introduced an ISA board as first part of its own product line.

A member of the company from the very beginning: Managing Director, Gisela Hassler. "Ever since we started out, we have been focussing on our customers' needs — and in the past 25 years, we have never lost sight of that focus."

Today, the team is composed of 18 staff members. When one of the founders left in 2000, Oliver Rovini took over the position of Technical Director. Under his aegis, the first modular card system of the MI series was developed, which allows the use of both analogue and digital front-end modules on base cards with virtually any form factor. As the demand for these cards is still high, the company continues to deliver them to existing customers — even after 14 years!

"We would never surprise our customers by suddenly discontinuing a product; instead we keep supplying our products as long as they are in demand. Our customers' requirements have top priority — even if this poses logistic challenges," says Gisela Hassler. This also includes personal contact between developers and customers: The developers provide direct support without tiresome call centres or voice entrance procedures.

In 2004, the company moved to Grosshansdorf near Hamburg, Germany. All of the departments are located conveniently under one roof on an area of 750 m² (about 8,100 ft²): Administration, Development, Production and Warehouse.

In the fast-paced high-tech industry, Spectrum attaches great importance to personal relationships and continuity. As such, it is only logical to supply customers with free software and firmware updates throughout the product life-cycles.

25 years of Instrumentation

The field of instrumentation has changed significantly over the past 25 years. Whereas digitizers with 12-bit resolution and sampling rates in the two-digit MS/s (mega-samples per second) range were state of the art in the 1990's, Spectrum launched a model with 16-bit resolution and a sampling rate of 250 MS/s only last year. There have also been considerable changes with regard to the sampling rate. The company's first commercially successful product was the PAD52 model, a 2-channel 8-bit 50 MS/s digitizer for ISA bus. The underlying technology was so straightforward that a downgraded version of the product was also offered as a construction kit in a magazine. As modern products operate in the range of several hundreds of MS/s or higher, they require multi-layer boards, SMT placing and BGA technologies — definitely well beyond the scope of do-it-yourself construction.

"There is a clear trend in instrumentation towards highest resolution and ever increasing sampling rates," says Technical Director Oliver Rovini. "With our latest product, the launch of which smoothly coincides with our anniversary, Spectrum now plays in the first league of instrumentation. To us, a sampling rate of 5 GSamples/s is a great leap forward, as this means a fivefold increase of the maximum sampling rate offered so far."

With the new M4i.22xx-x8 series, Spectrum provides engineers and scientists with the opportunity of capturing and analysing electrical signals in a frequency range of DC up to 1 GHz. Nine different cards with various speeds, bandwidths and channels allow signals, edges and pulses to be measured below the range of one ns.

PC Connection

In the early 1990's, the universal PC interface for plug-in cards was the ISA bus. Cards for this bus system allowed data to be transferred into the computer at speeds of a few megabytes per second. In the meantime, its successor, called PCI bus, and its quicker and broader extension PCI-X have almost vanished from the market, with the PCI Express (PCIe) bus, which offers scalable speeds, now being the standard interface in modern PCs. With the M4i family of PCIe Gen2 plug-in cards, which was introduced in late 2012, Spectrum makes full use of the maximum speed of the PCIe interface. M4i boards reach streaming speeds of more than 3 gigabytes per second. This facilitates online data analysis or extremely long recording on RAID arrays, even at high speeds.

Thus, quick telecommunications signals with 2 channels and 500 MS/s at 14-bit resolution can be fed continuously into the computer and stored for hours on a commercial array of quick SSDs. Ultra-fast radar signals can also be captured by a computer this way. As only reflections are of interest here, this process requires lower transfer bandwidths. A segmented recording (multiple recording mode) then consists of e.g. 4 channels at 8 bits with 1.25 GS/s, with bursts of 50 µs being recorded every 250 µs only. The resulting data bandwidth is reduced to 1 GB/s, which can be read out easily through a PCIe interface with 8 lanes.

Not all people are willing to open their PC housings in order to make their computers ready for quick data transfer. Whereas the IEC bus was commonly used in the past, typical external interfaces used today are USB bus for simple and inexpensive instrumentation on the one hand and Ethernet interface, which is available in all systems, on the other hand. "We have been supporting the LXI standard (LAN eXtensions for Instrumentation) which is based and compatible to Ethernet with our digitizerNETBOX since 2012. For the first time in the history of Spectrum we can now offer an easy-to-use device solution for users in industry, research and development that want to focus on their instrumentation application and prefer an all-in-one solution," says Oliver Rovini. "Thanks to the Ethernet interface, the devices can be used on the user's desk, in customer service, for mobile applications or directly at the machine. Basically, it is possible to control digitizerNETBOX from anywhere in the world, provided that the workplace and the device are interconnected through a LAN infrastructure."

Drivers and Software — How is Data fed into the Computer?

Back in the days of ISA boards, users needed to have considerable programming skills. Every product had a different design and was programmed differently and the instruction manual typically consisted of a list of hardware registers and possible values. Spectrum recognised the benefits of using universal drivers at an early stage. The first universal driver for Spectrum boards was launched back in 1997 with the objective of simplifying the hardware interface and keeping it simple for users while still being able to access all hardware features. This concept proved very popular. In 2006, when the second generation of modular cards was introduced, this concept was extended. Suggestions and wishes from the customers were incorporated, flaws were eliminated and the company's experience was taken into account. This resulted in the universal spcm driver, which is the unified driver interface for all series produced since 2006 and for the years to come.

Thanks to this driver concept, it is irrelevant whether a legacy PCI card is programmed with Visual Basic under Windows, a modern PCIe card is programmed with MATLAB under Linux or a digitizerNETBOX is programmed with LabVIEW. The actual driver interface is always the same, regardless of the various board families and operating systems.

Quality Management

As the products are becoming ever more powerful and complex, while offering more and more features, they also require significantly more and smaller components than they used to. In addition, the range of products comprises more than 400 different variants, which is the price a manufacturer has to pay when wanting to provide its customers with maximum long-term product availability. Whereas in-house soldering work took place at Spectrum in the early years and a hand-written check list was used for controlling the quality of the finished products, the complete production sector and quality management is well-organised and documented today.

In this context, Gisela Hassler points out: "Our complete chain of production and testing is subject to detailed specifications and controlling in order to ensure maximum delivery quality. This includes selecting partners for printed circuit boards and placement from the national market, subjecting assemblies to automated tests and testing the finished products automatically for several hours before releasing them for delivery. In this process, all relevant specifications are measured and documented for each product delivered. No product leaves our company unless it fulfils the specified values and at least two people have checked its correct delivery condition."

Despite this elaborate testing procedure and the broad range of products, the usual delivery period is less than two weeks from order placement — to the great astonishment of new customers, who are used to significantly longer delivery periods.

The Future

Spectrum is well-positioned for the future, planning to create many new and innovative products at consistently high quality levels. In this context, the corporate management aims to achieve moderate organic growth that gives consideration to the long-standing and trustful business relationships.

Author: Spectrum Instrumentation