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Case Study: Business Growth with Test Standardization

EI 2022 035smIf you think of a fire alarm as a white plastic box with a red button in the center and a 9V battery, you’re absolutely correct — that’s Ei’s most popular historical product, with nearly 100 million units currently in market. But you’re also 30 years out of date, as it launched in the ’80s.

Modern risk-detection products not only have precisely calibrated sensors, but embedded software, mesh-network communication, and wireless obstruction detection. To ensure quality of a smart, connected product requires functional test of software, electrical circuits, batteries, wireless radios, sensors, and user interface. What’s more, customer safety legislation regularly evolves—so each product revision increases the test coverage.


Recent regulatory and market changes have created opportunities for growth, and Ei has responded with increased investment in technology and processes—including test. The functionality of Ei products is continually growing, as alarms have evolved from component-level designs to smart systems – drastically changing design and test requirements. Every product has new features such as output signals, humidity sensors, and radio protocols.

Simultaneously, Ei’s average product is in market for around 10 years, and some fire alarms from the 1990s are still deployed. This puts immense pressure on its test teams, who must troubleshoot any product currently in market.

Product quality and reliability are non-negotiable, because fire and safety alarms are lifesaving equipment. And the business cost of being late to market is considerable, as Ei has built long-term trust-based relationships with clients. Extra pressure is put on test, as any earlier slip in schedule compresses the available test time.

These factors, taken together, made Ei’s existing test strategy unmanageable and expensive.


Solution: automation delivers quality and time savings

To address these challenges, Ei has increased automation and standardization, and taken full advantage of software tools.

To achieve the highest quality standards, every aspect of the product must be fully verified: firstly, in tests done in collaboration with the designers. Here, Ei reviews every element of code multiple times and tests each circuit and component.

Next, Ei performs “black box” testing, where an independent group of engineers test all functionality through every possible situation. This intense two-stage process differentiates the company’s products.

In validation, Ei’s priority is accuracy. Stage one prioritizes instrument quality, but stage two ensures full control of those instruments with open access to low-level drivers. From desktop PXI instrumentation to large anechoic chambers, Ei prioritizes open architectures that give detailed insight into how measurements are taken and allow adjustment.

Ei manufactures tens of millions of products annually, so process efficiency and speed are paramount – addressed in test with a combination of parallelism, cycle-time optimization, and downtime minimization. Previously, using traditional benchtop instruments, Ei could manage tens of tests daily for a DUT, but using PXI it creates an automated series and runs hundreds of tests overnight. This increases test coverage (which correlates to product quality) and enables better use of engineering time.

Once configured, automated tests are reusable, accelerating development – Ei has built a LabVIEW library covering 40 percent of its new product validation tests. Automating validation tests with PXI and LabVIEW saved more than 50 percent of time compared with the previous strategy. Ei uses this time to improve its test coverage and product quality.

Another way to ensure quality is considering the validation process holistically. Each prototyped product is assigned a digital passport, containing all test data, and information on any unusual event it has experienced that might affect its behavior.

The standardization of processes, systems, and data across the lab streamlines development, grows test coverage, and ultimately improves product quality.


Cross-Functional Collaboration in Test

As product complexity increases, test coverage requirements increase. Delays at earlier stages compress the production development schedule to meet a fixed release date. The goal of collaboration across departments is to ensure standards of product quality, while removing risks to the NPI schedule slipping.

All Ei’s engineering is co-located. Design, validation, and production teams work just a few meters apart, and initiatives to promote interaction have paid significant dividends.

Teams share both product design thoughts and measurement code. Focusing on cross-functional collaboration and standardization reduces schedule risk for NPI test projects, so 95 percent are released on or before schedule. The 5 percent missed are low priority and often deliberately de-emphasized: important projects are always delivered punctually!

With open access to production test data, R&D engineers commonly pull large data sets, to identify failure trends. This helps find potential product issues before they reach prototype validation, using data from millions of production devices.


Production Strategy: Standardization

Traditionally, Ei had a different, custom tester for each product; built individually and maintained by the engineer who designed it. This became unmanageable. Product complexity grew, making tester development schedules longer and less predictable and putting pressure on anyone doing maintenance. The strategy had to change.

Ei built a standardization strategy across design, validation, and production. Now, it strives for commonality in product design architectures, which solidifies test coverage earlier in the process.

To maximize reuse, standard tests are matched with a set of PXI instrumentation covering everything but the most unusual corner case. Ei saw 50 percent cycle-time reduction with a standardized test platform using PXI, LabVIEW, and TestStand. This removes the need for double testers within a manufacturing cell, significantly reducing the cost of test and redundancy of test instruments.

Standardization on modular PXI hardware has also simplified procurement. Ei can order hardware in batches, which is easier and quicker. The test components of a manufacturing cell are now so standard that, when product volume increases, it requires minimum effort to scale test system replications.

Once Ei had established a common set of hardware, the next stage was to standardize test software development on just LabVIEW and TestStand – previously it used Python, C#, and LabVIEW, amongst others. Each NPI project starts with what Ei calls the “LabVIEW Kit,” including software architecture, recommended hardware, and go-to resources in its centralized code repository. This makes development faster and more predictable.

Standardization didn’t happen overnight. Ei defined a pipeline of work and made little changes every day. Now, two years in, everyone on the team is onboard.

As part of this change, the company also elevated the role of test and operations data in new product development. This standardization initiative using PXI and LabVIEW reduced the development of new system designs from many months to just a few weeks. The predictability of standardized test development processes has built trust with other functions across the company.


Conclusions: Measurable Success

Overall, Ei has invested in process, systems, and data standardization across validation and production teams using PXI, LabVIEW, and TestStand. This has achieved some strong, measurable results: for validation, a 10X coverage increase and 50 percent time saving; in production, a 17 percent yield increase, and 50 percent cycle-time decrease.

The changes have enabled a maintenance staffing reduction of one-third, and significantly decreased staff training required to maintain systems – while also increasing manufacturing yield from 80% to 97%, and improving production forecasting.

These improvements have enabled Ei to bring new smart products to market while sustaining quality, which would otherwise not have been possible. By meeting high demands for product volume while maintaining clear differentiation in quality, Ei has achieved sustained, exponential growth.

Based on a text of NI (National Instruments)

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