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Startup Targets the More Mundane Tasks of Test Engineering

Electronic devices can be designed thousands of miles from where they are manufactured and ultimately deployed. And they need to be tested every step of the way. But electrical engineers worlds apart may store test results in different places, which can complicate tasks like debugging glitches and correlating results with test conditions.

Santa Clara, California-based startup Gradient One is trying to simplify many of the mundane tasks weighing down test engineering as hardware becomes more complicated. The company has developed a cloud platform for test automation, storage and analysis and other tasks that traditionally have been handled at the test bench. The goal is to shave costs for test engineering firms and other businesses.

Gradient One wants to ease headaches as minor as sharing an oscilloscope screenshot within an engineering team and as severe as debugging glitches and analyzing the correlations between measurements and test conditions. Traditionally, test engineers have to search through enormous spreadsheets for results, emailing around the office for clues to narrow the search, the company said.

“One of the things we see from customers is that test engineers are being forced to become software engineers,” said Nick Edwards, Gradient One’s founder and chief executive. “So we wanted to look at test engineering from the ground-up. We wanted to make sure everyone has a low-maintenance, universal accessible system for their test results and plans.”

Everything from semiconductors to medical devices is growing in complexity. That complicates testing, which electrical engineers have long said is often underfunded and postponed until the last second because of product deadlines. Because of the growing complexity, Gradient One says storing and processing test results within spreadsheets or other databases is no longer adequate. The cloud has virtually limitless storage and processing power for analytics.

Gradient One’s platform, which connects test equipment to the internet through a gateway device, lets users automate tests remotely–even from tablets and smartphones. They can also monitor tests occurring anywhere from the factory floor to the test bench. The company said customers can search for anything from a specific measurement to whether a serial number in a certain product family passed or failed a test.

Gradient One has won over test engineering firm Granite River Labs, which tests electronic devices for more than 500 companies, with a new service that monitors the usage of test equipment. Using it, Granite River Labs can better determine what to budget for new test equipment at its nine locations worldwide as well as move underused assets where they are more urgently needed. For every device connected to the service, the company charges $99 per month.

Granite River Labs, which owns tens of millions of dollars’ worth of test equipment, said that it saved more than $1 million by using the new service to minimize downtime and shuffle around underutilized equipment. The changes allowed test engineers to stop logging how long they used test equipment manually, giving them more time to run tests on hardware and interpret the results.

“When you walk into test labs or manufacturing organizations, they have millions of dollars of investment in their gear,” Edwards told Electronic Design. “Typically, the people writing those checks don’t have great visibility into utilization. They could see certain pieces of equipment gathering dust, but when these organizations become distributed geographically it becomes a lot harder.”

The question is whether Gradient One can turn other companies trying to buff out operational costs into paying customers. Working against it is the concern that test results are generally more secure stored in a company’s internal network than the cloud. But working in Gradient One’s favor is the fact that the electronics supply chain is growing more global and test outsourcing has ramped up in recent years.

Gradient One currently supports about 400 different models of test equipment, including oscilloscopes, motor controllers and any of the other instruments typically scattered around manufacturing plants or  test labs. The company uses interchangeable virtual instrument (IVI) and other standard interfaces to maximize support for its software, but it also offers tools for custom test setups.

Muscling into the $11 billion market for electronic test equipment could be difficult for Gradient One,which has raised venture funding but declined to disclose the total. “Test engineers are creatures of habit,” said Edwards. “They have a way of doing things and if you are going to interrupt their workflow, it is probably not going to be an effective implementation.” Gradient One says it should fit right in. 

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