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Automated Testing is not just for High Volume Processes

Introduction

I have been having some discussions with clients recently about Test Automation in general, which sparked some thoughts about the misconception that it is only applicable to High Volume processes and industries such as semiconductor and automotive. This post covers some of my thoughts on why this misconception needs to be set right.

Automation Overview

Test Automation is the process of removing, as far as possible, the steps of a test process that are reliant on human interaction. There are many examples of this, but here are a couple to set the scene:

  • A test operator has to set the speed of a motor using a physical potentiometer

 

  • A test operator has to set a series of gate valves to determine the path of flow through pipework

With both of these examples an operator is required to ensure that the correct speed and valve configuration is set.  With current technology they could easily be automated, but what benefits are there to doing that?

Why Automate?

There are a number of significant benefits that can relatively easily be achieved with automation:

  1. Accuracy – even the most experienced operator can make mistakes.  Provided an automated test process has been set up correctly it will always follow the same procedure and therefore avoid errors.
  2. Quality – where an operator has to manually set a parameter there will always be some variation in the setting.  An automated test, on the other hand, will always be executed the same way every time.  This has an impact on the repeatability of the test and accuracy of the results, thereby improving quality
  3. Throughput - it is generally much quicker for an automated function to execute than the manual equivalent.  This means that the throughput of an automated test system is higher than a manual equivalent
  4. Operator Utilisation – with an automated test there is less requirement for operator input.  This means she/he can be utilised on more value added tasks e.g. results analysis, research and development.

All of these benefits apply equally to High and Low Volume production environments.  Looking at throughput specifically, many tests in precision engineering processes require specific, high capital investment, complex test rigs.  Because of their high cost and specific nature there has to be a schedule where time slots are allocated for when rigs are required. If you can benefit from the tests being executed in less time, you have the opportunity to increase the test coverage. 

Increased test coverage can be realised in one of two ways.  You can either:

  • Fit more tests into the allocated slot. Thereby improving your understanding of the unit under test by investigating things that you might not have time to do with a manual test process.  In the longer term this means the quality and reliability of your product is improved.
  • Or you can complete the tests required in a production environment more quickly and either increase the throughput of the plant as a whole or reduce the number of expensive rigs required.  Either way you reduce the risk that a test will overrun its allocated time slot and cause the delivery of other products to be delayed.

Summary

So ultimately I believe that automation can be beneficial to any test process, as long as the return on investment is within the expectations of the business. There is always the option to take the investment in steps so as to reduce risk and convince stakeholders of the value of the changes.

We are always looking to fuel our engineers with the complex challenges they love to solve, so if you are involved in testing and want to discuss how automation might benefit you and your company, please get in touch.

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