The testing dilemma for young tech startups
By Cliff Ortmeyer, global head of technology product marketing and solutions development, Premier FarnellElectronics Test & Measurement Engineering Supply Chain electronic test test
The last decade has seen a surge in innovation by small, young technology startups, proving that companies don’t need to be large and seasoned to lead the market. While startups have flexibility and focus that many big companies lack, some areas of technical development are harder for small companies to master. For a young company anxious to get its products in the market, electronic test and measurement (T&M) may seem like a time-consuming, exacting distraction that slows time to market. Yet T&M is a crucial discipline in any development workflow, and thorough testing is arguably even more critical for startups than for more established companies.
Launching an unreliable product because corners are cut to allow an earlier launch can be financially disastrous to large companies, who may have to invest huge sums of money to repair their reputation (think of the recent issue of flaming handset batteries). Startups, however, will rarely survive such events.
It is true that small companies focused on development of cutting edge products and technologies rarely have deep expertise in T&M. That’s why product designers in startups often need outside support to help navigate the exciting yet critical early workflows when bringing their ideas to life, particularly to ensure adequate and thorough testing.
T&M Hurdles for Startups
There’s no question that testing is considered one of the least glamorous aspects of electronics, a perception that can have an impact on the role of testing programs at small startups. Entrepreneurs can fall into the trap of forecasting to hire a sales team, but forgetting to budget for testing. Although sales teams are necessary, without sufficient budget to test new products adequately, the sales team might not have a product to sell.
Another testing issue common with startups involves small initial test runs of new products. While the first five or ten products off the production line may function as expected, later units off the line may not perform to specifications. This can be due to errors in design or variation in components. Testing helps design engineers discover unanticipated problems that manifest when production is scaled, especially if components are operating on the edge of their tolerance.
There is a huge difference between a design that is successful on paper and a design that behaves as expected when put it to the test. All devices are made from individual components, which have their unique tolerances and parameters. Even with careful attention, stack tolerances can quickly cause a design to fail due to misalignment of boundary components.
The growth of embedded software-based products means the focus on testing to find and fix run-time problems can be even more critical. Even though many of these products use off-the-shelf hardware, the complex nature of the software, especially in IoT, industrial and healthcare industries, requires a well-planned testing regime.
A related challenge that startups face is the need to access reliable manufacturing. Although testing products during development is crucial, high-quality manufacturing processes are also important to ensure high-quality products. As good as the product design may be, without a reliable manufacturing partner to perform their part in the process, the product may never get past prototyping.
Testing expertise and expense may present challenges for startups
Access to testing expertise is another challenge. Current engineer programs tend to turn out young developers with great coding and software development skills, but are often less familiar with hardware integration (in fact, development boards such as BeagleBoards and Raspberry Pi make it possible for designers with very little hardware experience to become effective developers). However, thorough testing requires knowledge of the hardware platform, particularly for application dependent testing that evaluates the tolerances of microprocessors when running critical applications.
In fact, with the rapid expansion of new technologies over recent years, one of the big challenges for designers in early-stage companies is having the expertise to know what and how to test when products contain multiple, overlapping technologies.
Designers in small startups are often under pressure to be experts in multiple fields, which is a fine idea on paper but not realistic in practice. Wireless power, for example, is a technology that many designers may be required to implement in future designs. This means that designers must know not only how to design a wireless power system, but also understand how to test for multiple parameters they have never encountered before.
Designers in small startups are often under pressure to be experts in multiple fields, which is a fine idea on paper but not realistic in practice
Unless they have expertise in this field of design, proper testing of items like foreign object insertion may cause a product design flaw that might not be discovered until it’s too late. This challenge is particularly evident when designing a product for use in regulated industries such as healthcare, as products must meet strict regulatory requirements and industry standards. Obtaining the necessary certification is difficult, and especially so for startups that may be unfamiliar with the processes.
Another area requiring specialized testing skills is energy efficiency. With an increased focus on saving energy, entire solutions must be designed with power savings in mind, meaning each part of a design needs to be tested and optimized. The increasing adoption of IoT in almost every market sector drives the placement of sensors everywhere, and often energy efficiency is the most challenging requirement in these systems, particularly if the device is battery-powered. The use of certified and regularly calibrated test tools is crucial to avoid inaccurate readings which could go on to cause problems further down the line.
The cost of testing can also be a significant obstacle for startups. Though the investment is worth making, T&M tools and the time commitment to testing both require significant outlays, and sometimes account for a large portion of a product’s initial manufacturing cost.
Tips for More Effective Startup Testing Strategies
Successful startups have clearly defined approaches for testing during product development and launch. That’s because the primary benefit of a healthy testing strategy is the development of more robust products that are truly market-ready. Other benefits include reduced development costs from finding faults earlier in the design process, and a more efficient design phase that leads to reduced time to market.
Here are some tips to help startups put in place an effective testing program. While small startups may feel they lack the bandwidth and expertise to fully establish a full T&M protocol, equipment distributors and manufacturing partners offer services that can lower the threshold of cost and expertise necessary for a thorough testing strategy, putting effective testing within reach of even the smallest companies.
Reduce the Cost of T&M Equipment:
One of the main elements of a successful testing strategy is having access to the right tools to test your product. Investing in test equipment to support a testing strategy provides a strong foundation for ongoing product development, making all future versions of a product easier to test and improve since the groundwork is already laid.
Investing in high-quality testing and measurement tools will pay dividends, as they can be used across the product lifecycle, from research through to development and beyond. A trusted technology partner can provide startups with access to a broad range of testing tools specifically suited to the needs and budgets of different sized businesses and startups. Rather than buying individual tools, for instance, mixed domain tools allow design engineers to test for a variety of requirements using one multipurpose integrated tool, which is a more cost-effective investment. The increased use of USB-based tools also provides a major advantage for startups, as they allow access to multiple tools at a lower cost. Equipment rental is also a good idea, especially for instruments that are not used frequently. Purchase of private label brands is another good cost-saving option.
Use Simulation Technology as Part of the Test Strategy:
Time to market is a huge factor for most startups, as their smaller size and agility allows them to gain and retain a competitive edge over larger and more slow-moving companies. With the increase in design complexity, whether it is utilizing more PCB layers, more complex software development, or even new mechanical and packaging technologies, simulation technology can help startups maintain their advantage by finding and eliminating errors that may not otherwise be revealed until production, meaning that the number of design iterations can be reduced.
Understand Necessary Standards and Tests:
Developers need to understand that certain industries are regulated, and for products to be approved in these markets, they must meet regulatory standards. For instance, wearable health and medical devices are a popular target for IoT designers. However, these products may need to meet strict Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and other guidelines to reach a mass market. In addition, different governmental units may mandate different tests. Products to be sold in the European Union need to meet Conformité Européenne (CE) compliance, while products to be sold in the United States must be certified to Federal Communication Commission (FCC) standards. Products that are targeted for sale in both geographies will need to comply with both sets of standards. Regulatory compliance is complex and a moving target. Seeking guidance from your technology equipment provider can take the guesswork out of meeting regulatory compliance.
Rely on a Trusted Manufacturing Partner to Get It Right:
The manufacturer that builds your product also can evaluate it during production, especially for adding the proper test points on the board and designing a proper final test procedure. Working with an experienced manufacturer will help not only define the necessary test software and hardware jig, but also root out potential failures caused by using fake components acquired through channels other than authorized distributors. Manufacturers can also perform incoming quality control testing of components, which helps ensure that the components operate to their published parameters. This can be a particular problem when parts become obsolete or unavailable, as finding a compatible replacement can be a headache. A thorough testing framework is useful in this scenario because replacement parts can be tested for compatibility prior to being introduced to the production line. Buying from an authorized distributor can also help to alleviate these issues.
While developing an ongoing testing strategy does present challenges, the benefits to startups far outweigh the cost and time required. Failure to test can result in catastrophic consequences and startups are particularly vulnerable. Fortunately, there are solutions that make testing and measurement accessible for design engineers, and by working with an experienced industry partner, designers can be sure they will receive the expertise, tools, support and guidance needed to make their designs—and indeed their new business—a success. To help address the knowledge gap with new technologies, designers need to work with companies that have the expertise, experience and support to guide them through the necessary processes.
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