Product Quality Leads Environmental Test Into 1999

Now that 1999 is almost here, it’s time to look ahead. What does the coming year have in store for environmental test? To find out, I contacted some industry leaders to get their viewpoints.

The environmental test industry blossomed in an era of military testing. But like many other industries, it had to retrench when the military market declined. “Environmental test continues its transition from military toward commercial applications where the concern for product quality is continually increasing,” said Sri Welaratna, president and CEO of Data Physics.

Today, “products from notebook computers to automobiles must survive some hostile environments,” he pointed out. “For example, common equipment such as a computer, a CD player, or a printer, are all expected to work quietly even after being bumped, dropped, or jostled.”

As manufacturers compete head-to-head in the commercial marketplace, the balance of power has shifted to the consumer. Ironically, the same forces that could have reduced the environmental test industry really caused its growth. The consumer demands quality and gets it by shopping around.

Today, manufacturers must distinguish their products to compete. “Our customers need to get to market with products that are clearly different from their competitors,” said Preston Wilson, president and CEO of QualMark. “Everybody must be more competitive because we all are selling to a tight money market.”

Some manufacturers want to pursue a certification of quality to distinguish their products from others. According to Mr. Wilson, “We’ve spent the last 30 months developing a certification program in conjunction with TÜV Products Service. It’s a certification mark of quality that manufacturers use to let customers know that their product has survived accelerated vibration and thermal stress test.”

Reduced Time-to-Market

Advanced technical products can become obsolete even before engineering releases the drawings to production. Companies are looking for ways to compress design and test cycles for quicker time-to-market.

“The need to reduce time-to-market for new products is becoming more acute,” continued Mr. Wilson. “As a result, we expect an increase in the sales of equipment that accelerates test.

“For example, I recently talked with a telecom manufacturer about cell phones,” he continued. “One of his biggest issues is time-to-market. Hitting the market release date is critical. If it’s late, their products could be obsoleted by a competitor.”

The World Economy

As the global market continues to shrink, no industry is isolated anymore. Today, environmental test companies are looking beyond domestic affairs to the world economy as they ponder how to distribute their resources to turn market demands into profits.

“For example, let’s look at the continuation of the growth in the United States, economic reforms in Japan, recovery in other Asian economies, stability in South America, and tranquillity in Russia,” said Richard McCormick, president of MB Dynamics. “A weakening of the U. S. dollar and a strengthening of other currencies around the globe are necessary to get exports moving.”

Technological Advancements

Environmental test products now are being produced with an eye toward greater portability and connectivity. In 1998, Data Physics capitalized on the development of improved software for greater connectivity in vibration controllers and analyzers.

“The operating systems in computers have evolved to establish connections between programs and systems, whether they are in the same computer or across networks,” Dr. Welaratna said. “ActiveX is the Microsoft trademark name for this technology. Using the internet, we have demonstrated the capability to run vibration tests in one location and analyze the results in another. This data is available for analysis anywhere in the world.”

The Need for Solutions

In the presence of a strong domestic economy, companies have found it difficult to attract skilled workers. With fewer qualified personnel on-board, the trend is away from isolated products or services and more toward total solutions. In the future, the environmental test equipment that sells will be easy to use, reliable, and dedicated to the application.

According to Mr. McCormick of MB Dynamics, there is a shortage of experienced test engineers and technicians with enough time to operate, maintain, and calibrate the equipment and instrumentation that they have in their labs. “They need equipment that is intuitive to operate and requires less service and maintenance,” he pointed out. “We provide such equipment and offer maintenance and calibration services to reduce the test-lab workload.”

Toward Cost-Effectiveness

The environmental test industry continues to expand its product and service offerings and to strive for more cost-effective solutions to reach a wider circle of customers. Dr. Welaratna pointed out that vibration instrument technology is very demanding and, presently, the cost can be high.

“We are creating vibration instruments that make this technology more affordable,” continued the Data Physics CEO. “We are introducing computer- based instruments that are smaller and less expensive than traditional instruments.”

On the services side, Mr. McCormick said that MB Dynamics is helping customers find affordable solutions in locating and fixing the root causes of squeaks and rattles in full vehicles. Also, our equipment can be used to test subassemblies like instrument panels, doors, seats, and heating and air conditioning units; components like radios and airbag modules; and materials that may be in contact with one another.

Location is one way to reduce the costs of laboratory services. “Historically we’ve had customers come from all over the world to come to our labs here in the United States,” said Mr. Wilson of QualMark. “For added customer convenience and affordability, we’re expanding our lab partnerships in other countries.”

New Products in 1999

In the coming year, look for easier-to-use test equipment, greater accessibility to test services, good applications support, and more complete solutions. This progress has come through a combination of commitment and new technology.

According to Mr. McCormick, MB Dynamics has introduced a line of vibration exciters with large mounting tables and stiff load support. It can carry heavy test articles with large footprints without the need for head extenders or external load support. A patented flexure assembly provides the support for the moving part of the exciter, which is noiseless and frictionless. One application for this technology is automotive squeak-and-rattle testing, where quietness is critical.

New environmental test products will incorporate the latest advances in IC technology. Dr. Welaratna noted that Data Physics would continue to use higher-powered DSP and processor circuits to produce better-performance products that are smaller and less expensive.

“The instruments we design are either plugged directly into the PCI slot or the PCMCIA slot in a notebook or laptop,” he said. “With our products, a notebook computer with the PCMCIA adapter is all you need to have a complete vibration analyzer in the field.”

Better software programs also are being developed for easier use and control of environmental test instruments. QualMark has just released a new software package called test manager. It is used in conjunction with the company’s omni-axial vibration system, which consolidates the control of various pieces of equipment and handles data acquisition.

“Because it is an open system, Test Manager expands the use of our controller to equipment from other manufacturers,” Mr. Wilson said. “Also, it works with Windows and LabVIEW so you are not tied into using our embedded PC controller.”

Copyright 1998 Nelson Publishing Inc.

December 1998

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