Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Off-the-shelf Test Systems

In mid-October someone asked in a comment about using commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) test systems vs. building your own systems. At the time I replied with this:
"That's a broad subject that deserves some thinking - maybe I'll post on it in a week or so. But in general, I'd rather not reinvent the wheel if I can help it. I've used several 'canned' systems, especially motion control and generic test instruments, in the past. But often the things I've had to test were unique enough that I had to build my own system, or at least use the off-the-shelf solutions as a sub-assembly for my final test station."
I have time to post on it now, so here are three different experiences I've had with such systems.

Building a COTS system
When I worked at HP/Agilent, I helped create the Passive Component Test system for a new Optical Spectrum Analyzer (which is obsoleted by now). It was a built-in software app that used the OSA to test common parameters for optical components. To configure the tests, you needed a script. I wrote an Excel script creator in VBA that made it easier for the user to configure the test setup. It worked very well, and I know of at least four different companies who used it (I talked with them at a trade show a year later).

Full system
Several years ago I started work with a company that had just purchased a test system from Palomar Technologies. This system handled the optical fiber alignment, test setup, and specific manufacturing steps after testing. This system had a "pseudo-basic" script language for customizing tests. For further customization I wrote a LabVIEW front end that controlled aspects of the testing.

Multiple Vendors→One System
One of my current test systems is a conglomeration from three different sources. The main system (motion control, vision recognition, basic data handling) is from an established vendor for these systems. Second, the front-end software (controlling the test infrastructure) was written by a engineering company based on their standard product but customized for our use. Third, I have written quite a bit of code to further customize the front end of the software.

Any "off-the-shelf" system I have used, or helped build, has required customization. What your company makes, how it uses the data, how it grades those devices - all of those features are unique. Furthermore, unless you are testing final product the test system needs to be integrated within other manufacturing steps. That leads to further modifications.

The only exception I can think of is if the test system vendor sells you a test system that they have also sold to a direct competitor that makes the same product. That is a completely different issue.

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