During our annual spring-cleaning, my wife commented that we have not made any upgrades to our home since we bought it nearly ten years ago. I mentioned that we had the exterior painted, had the driveway sealed, replaced appliances, and got new floor coverings. Those count, right? Sure, she said, but those are maintenance items. She’s ready to renovate: New kitchen, new bathroom, new fixtures, new floors. She was looking at our house through a 10- to 20-year lens, and making a long-term investment in a house we like and a neighborhood we love. I was looking just a few years out, thinking we might downsize to a new home in two or three years when we’re empty nesters. Both are valid points of view whether you’re talking about renovating a home or a test environment.
At work the following day, I was discussing options with my team for dealing with aging test stands and test equipment that was approaching obsolescence. Should we spend our budget extending the life of the current technology, migrate incrementally to newer technology, or start from scratch with a fully modern test floor? Each strategy is viable, each has its pros and cons, but like the home discussion I had with my wife, there are considerations that go beyond purchase price.
Short view? Extend.
How long do you need to use the equipment you have? If you just need two or three more years out of it, then extending the life of your equipment is the easiest way to go. You just need to keep the equipment running—there’s no need to research new technology, write new software, or re-validate and requalify measurements. There are drawbacks, of course. As I mentioned in a previous post , it gets harder to find replacement parts for older equipment, downtime tends to increase, and the speed and accuracy of older equipment tends to lag behind newer equipment. Some companies use what I call the “eBay strategy” to cope: they stockpile older instruments for spare parts. It can work for a few years, but after that, the test systems and stockpiles often return to eBay.
Long view? Modernize.
New technology is faster, more accurate, and can revitalize your test program with more capability, more features, and equipment that’s covered under warranty. It comes at a cost, though, and not just hardware. You’ll also need to address software, measurement verification, racking and stacking, training, code compatibility (if needed), and new processes on the test floor. Modernization works great when there is an inflection point in the technology you need to test on your product. It’s also a compelling strategy if there’s a breakthrough in test technology that will make you more competitive, or if you have long-term production needs that require an upgrade in throughput or capacity. Like renovating a house, modernization can be daunting. But many times I’ve seen companies achieve a 100 percent return on investment in as little as six months, and the competitive advantages can be dramatic.
Mid-range view? Migrate.
With an incremental migration, you replace only the underperforming assets—the oldest, slowest, least accurate, or least reliable instruments. This allows you to minimize hardware and software changes, and incrementally increase reliability, reduce test time, increase accuracy, and minimize downtime. You’ll have some capital costs for new equipment, and you may have to address code compatibility, requalify some of your products, and continue to deal with occasional unplanned downtime. But for production lines that need to keep running without interruption for four to ten years or more—typical of the aerospace and defense industry, for example—this can be a good strategy.
There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to building the right test environment, but there is a common set of questions that should be asked. How well is your current environment working? How long do you need it to work? What are your competitors doing? What products are coming? What do your budgets look like today versus next year? What’s your total cost for testing your products? How much could you improve test results by replacing one, two, or three instruments? The key is to look at your test investment from all angles, move forward with a plan, and be willing to re-evaluate as conditions change.
Duane Lowenstein is a Test Strategy Analysis Manager for Keysight Technologies.