Monday, September 24, 2007

Configuration control for test systems

Any firm writing software is concerned with configuration control. There has to be a way to manage what the latest version of the program really is. Especially with multiple programmers, you need to know what code is safe to run. Similarly, after the software is released the company needs to manage the configuration of the software out in the field & any revisions or upgrades it makes.

Document control is an important subject for any manufacturing firm. Work instructions, specs, hardware designs, test plans - these all have to be managed. Where I currently work we have a nice system called Omnify that performs these tasks well, but it took a lot of work to get to that point.

Hardware systems are not immune to configuration management issues, for many of the same reasons. Do a Google search for "hardware configuration control," and you will find items such as discussions about control issues on the old NASA Apollo program, telecommunications standards for configuring hardware on a network, and plenty of ads for software that helps to manage hardware configuration issues.

Having said all that, I have to conclude that similar concerns apply to test stations. For many test engineers this isn't a big issue. There is only one test system, they update it when they need to, and all is good. But what if you have several test stations that, for one reason or another, are different?

This is something I have struggled with lately. I have two different test stations that test the same things and run almost the same software. Both stations use an optical spectrometer, but they use different spectrometer models and that leads to slightly different software. When I upgrade the software on the stations, I need to maintain separate software images. When the technician does calibrations, I make sure there are different work instructions he follows for each station. If the firmware for the spectrometer is upgraded, it must be done separately and logged as separate activities.

The long term solution to this problem is upgrade both stations to the same model of spectrometer and therefore the same software. But in the short term it requires rigorous configuration control. That's just the way it is.

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