Diversifying Test and Measurement: An Interview with Kaitlyn Franz of Digilent


Hailey Stewart, Editor at EE Power

Hailey Stewart

While test and measurement instruments are crucial to the design process, they can also be the most expensive with some oscilloscopes topping $20,000. However, expensive doesn't always mean better. Digilent, an electrical engineering products company, set out to prove that with the Analog Discovery 2.

In this interview, EE Power editor Hailey Stewart discussed one of Digilent’s most popular mixed-signal USB oscilloscopes with Test and Measurement Product Marketing Manager Kaitlyn Franz. 

For $279, the Analog Discovery 2, which first entered the test and measurement market in 2015, offers flexibility at a time when the growth of the power electronics industry requires versatility, Franz said. Part of the Discovery product lineup at Digilent, the Analog Discovery 2 can be configured to work as several instruments such as a waveform generator, a power supply, a voltmeter, a data logger, an impedance analyzer, and more. 

 

Image 1: The Analog Discovery 2. Image courtesy of Digilent. 

 

Franz shared the newest updates to the Analog Discovery 2, which is constantly evolving and her insight into the test and measurement industry's changing landscape.

Since working with Digilent for the last three years, Franz said she and others at Digilent have seen the test and measurement industry change drastically due to changing workspaces and differing engineering needs. As companies outsource their engineers and as technology allows engineers to work outside the lab and office setting, Franz said it is Digilent’s goal to give those engineers the option to have an array of tools in a small package. 

 

EE Power: What does Digilent offer to the Power industry? 

Franz:  We make tools and development boards specifically for engineers working on embedded systems. So, our expertise started in Xilinx FPGA development boards. And as that product line grew, we started to look into some applications — the application that was really great for those products was the measurement. 

We initially created an oscilloscope and logic analyzer as an example project on an FPGA development board. After making this as an example, we realized that it was a great tool and a product for engineers, so we ran with that idea and eventually created the standalone product of the Analog Discovery.

Our products are focused on getting engineers everything they need to develop, so they’re very flexible, customizable, and affordable. In power applications specifically, the resolution is important to view both small and large signals in the same window. All of our portable scopes are high resolution. 



EE Power: Why did you partner with Analog Devices and the Xilinx University Program to create the Analog Discovery 2?

Franz: So the Analog Discovery started as an application of an FPGA board. That’s where the partnership with the Xilinx University Program came in. Originally, Digilent was founded by two university professors to create affordable boards — FPGA boards — for students to use that could be bought for less than the price of a textbook. Our roots are in education, and that's where the Xilinx University Program partnership came from in developing Analog Discovery. 

And then, of course, we wanted to use industry-standard parts for the front ends of the Analog Discovery, so we worked with Analog Devices to design the Analog Discovery so that it was flexible enough, inexpensive enough for students, and multi-function enough for students. So it has more than just an oscilloscope on it, because students will need more than just that, but also has industry-standard components.

When we created the device it was very important that we use chips from leaders in the industry, so working with these companies was very important to us. 

The Digital Discovery and Analog Discovery Studio are the two most recent additions to the Discovery family and they also feature a Xilinx FPGA and chips from Analog Devices. 

 

Image 2: Kaitlyn Franz, Digilent test and measurement product marketing manager. Image courtesy of Digilent. 

 

EE Power: This device is part of a larger range of discovery products. What is the discovery product line and how does this device stand out in that line?

Franz: All of the Discovery products are all portable, multifunction USB instruments, so they combine the processing capability of your computer with an instrument that has up to 12 functions. So you plug them into a computer and you use our software — WaveForms —  which is free and then you get up and running with that. 

There are three products right now. There's the Analog Discovery 2, which is the second to the original product. And that has the 13 instruments and digital and analog instruments. And that gives you the benefit of maybe not necessarily knowing what projects you might need or you just want the most functionality or the widest range of functions. 

And then there's the Digital Discovery, which has only digital instruments. So that would be for someone that mainly is doing things with digital signals and they need higher speeds. So since the instrument has only digital instruments, more resources focus on the digital. So it has higher speed, more channels, better for that. 

The Analog Discovery Studio is a product that we recently introduced that has the same instruments as the Analog Discovery, but it has a different interface. It's breadboardable and the interface magnets into all of the instruments, so it's a little bit more integrated. If you had multiple projects or designs, you could build them on the connectable breadboards, which are the canvases, and then swap them out.

 

EE Power: Considering test and measurement devices are so important to the power industry, what was the overarching goal in creating this test device? 

Franz: I would say the main factor was getting customers the most functionality and the most instruments at the best value. We tried to put as many instruments in it as possible that would be applicable for a wide range of engineers, but are high enough quality to give functional data. Since it's a USB-based scope instrument, we're able to improve it each time we release a software update. 

For Example, in the last two updates, we added completely new instruments. We added a protocol analyzer and impedance analyzer. This way, our customers can have whatever instrument they need, no matter where they're working or where the problem arises.

 

EE Power: What are the difficulties of creating a device with so many instrument options (oscilloscope, waveform generator, power supply, voltmeter, etc)?

Franz: Since we wanted to make it so that you could use the maximum amount of instruments and tackle the more applications and problems, we traded high-end specifications for increased utility. Though we went this route, we still wanted to make specifications that would provide functional use for most engineers. For example, a dedicated oscilloscope would have a much higher bandwidth than in an Analog Discovery 2, but the reality is that an engineer likely won’t need to test the full range of their oscilloscopes, so the 16-bit resolution and 30 MHz bandwidth of the Analog Discovery 2 provides what’s needed for most problems. Having a consolidated, portable benchtop tool with as many different uses as the Analog Discovery 2 allows engineers to save resources (both physical and financial) while solving a wide range of problems. 

 

Image 3: Analog Discovery 2 running WaveForms. Image courtesy of Digilent. 

 

EE Power: What was the largest challenge in developing the Analog Discovery 2?

Franz: I would say one of the difficulties was definitely the user interface. Since there are so many features, designing it in a way that people are able to find what they need quickly was definitely a challenge. 

Since it's a PC oscilloscope, we're constantly updating the software. So the software now has been in development for probably 12 years, and every update has tons of changes. I would say that it's never fully developed because our customer needs are always changing and there are always new features that we can add to help the customer solve their problems.

 

EE Power: Can you explain the software development of the Analog Discovery 2?

Franz: The software is what's built-in for customers to just set up and use, but it also has a software development kit (WaveForms SDK) and scripting interface. So if there's anything that it doesn't do, it can be written in JavaScript, C/C++, Python, Visual Basic. It also has functionality for MATLAB and LabVIEW.

Our software, whenever we update it, is always backward and forward compatible. So whatever device you have, if it's a device that works with WaveForms, it will always work with WaveForms. As we add new devices, those would work with WaveForms also. 

We really believe in keeping our software free for our hardware users. And we think it's really important that as we continue to add value, we make that available to all of our customers.



EE Power: When engineers tell you what they need in a test and measurement device, what stands out to you? How do you work that information into the creation of a product like the Analog Discovery 2?

Franz: We always like to hear about what they're doing and how they're pushing the device to the edges because we want to make sure that it can do almost everything that it needs to do. 

We have our online forums, and that's how most of our updates get made. Customers request directly on the forums and ask questions directly to the engineers. We also use this medium for product ideas and updates from those using our products. 

Our customers will post what they're working on, and that will inspire some of the new instruments. For example, a customer needed to know the impedance of their design.  so we developed the impedance analyzer that is now a part of the software. I would say we're inspired by their problems and making sure that we can give them everything they need to solve them as efficiently as possible.

 

Image 4: The standard Analog Discovery 2 comes packaged with fly wires, a micro USB cable, and pins. Image courtesy of Digilent.

 

EE Power: Why was it important for Digilent to offer "Pro" and "Maker" versions of the Analog Discovery 2 bundle?

Franz: We have several bundles depending on who the engineer is and what their challenges are. And those are primarily changing what adapters and accessories go with the product. 

For example, the pro bundle has a BNC adapter that adds BNC probes, which are the standard probes for an oscilloscope. So they'll be more familiar. They're also more secure, and they give more signal, better signal integrity, and higher bandwidth.



EE Power: What are the most recent updates to the Analog Discovery 2?

Franz: I previously mentioned two big updates that introduced two completely new instruments including the Protocol Analyzer and Impedance Analyzer. Most recently we’ve put a lot of work into the analysis side of the software. For example, adding new protocols to the protocol analyzer including CAN, HDMI CEC, and an AVR Programmer, and adding filters to the oscilloscope and plotting digital signals on the same plot as the oscilloscope. 

We’ve also added new views such as the persistence, histogram, and spectrogram we added to the Oscilloscope. That’s only a fraction of what’s been adding in the last couple of years, all the changes can be found in the changelog and documented in the update posts on our blog. 

 

EE Power: How have you seen the test and measurement industry change and the needs of engineers change?

Franz: We’re starting to see more specific applications and more specialized needs so customers are using WaveForms SDK more often.

Another big change that I've seen is that we're starting to have distributed teams where affordability is more important, or less traditional offices where there isn't a big lab space or it's not accessible.  More and more companies are starting to become distributed in both their soft skills teams, but also in engineering. And so with a distributed team, you can't necessarily have an entire bench for each different office or each at home office. So it's really helpful for the engineers to have something on their desk that they can reach for and solve problems without having to go find a lab that has all of that equipment.