It currently feels like the words ‘sustainable’ and ‘electronics’ just don’t go together. Every day, there’s a new news report about toxic materials in batteries, or the massive amount of e-waste generated and pollution associated with its mismanagement. Nonetheless, innovation in electronics technology is the KEY to many sustainable innovations: from energy-efficient LEDs to renewable energy from solar panels. And these could lead to future sustainability breakthroughs!
So, what can we do to ensure electronics are developed efficiently? Let’s take batteries. Batteries are needed for all sorts of sustainable innovations: from renewable energy storage to electric vehicles. Yet, their production is onerous process; it can take years from their design to their final acceptance and distribution to the market. Specifically, the manufacture and testing of the performance and safety of a new battery design can make up the longest part of R&D process as shown in Figure 1. So, it’s not that we don’t have better battery technology, it takes years to be released while it’s going through testing!
As I’ll soon explain, electronics have testing issues at every step of their development (from the initial design to maintenance while in use). As a result Incredibly important innovations are being slowed down by testing: solar panels for clean energy, LiDAR for autonomous vehicles, lasers for fibre-optic networks.
This article is the first of a series of four articles on these key questions:
- What are ‘electronic tests’ anyways?
- What (specifically) do tests measure?
- Why is ‘EVERY’ electronic test slow?
- How can we speed up testing?
Question #1: What are ‘electronic tests’ anyways?
Certain types of tests are performed in all electronic industries. One of the longest types of testing is reliability testing. I’ll summarise a few reliability tests throughout the device’s life: from designing an electronic to maintaining it when it’s in use. This is shown below:
Reliability enhancement tests: These tests happen when electronics are still being designed. The goal is to find the maximum limits of stress (e.g. vibrations, heat, current) that will break a product design. Then, engineers can fix the most common reasons for failure. For example, hard drives (electronics that store data on older computers) have a VERY tiny ‘head’ that reads and stores data on a magnetic disc (details here). It can be as small as a flake of pepper and is suspended over a disc rotating at 130 km/h! Any vibrations can damage this ‘head.’ So engineers should concentrate on trying to design better products by making the head safer.
Accelerated lifetime test: These tests carried out in simulated stressful environments (e.g., 85° C and/or 100% humidity) assess the performance of electronic products before they are placed on the market. Their purpose is to find the specifications to market the product (e.g. warranty and lifetime).
Burn-in / screening tests: These tests happen during the production process. Their purpose is to find units of a product that have manufacturing defects (e.g. cracks, wires not soldered tightly, exposure to contaminants). They do this by setting a ‘challenge’ for all units by forcing them to survive tough conditions for a short amount of time. The theory is that units with defects will degrade in this short amount of time, so they can be separated from functional devices.
Acceptance Test: These tests happen right before the electronics are installed for use. Their purpose is to make sure that products meet the standards they’re supposed to. This is more important for larger electronics (like a factory machine) than consumer electronics.
Maintenance/Field Testing: These tests happen after electronics are deployed on the field. Their purpose is to check electronics’ quality and remaining useful life. Remaining useful life is NOT the same as lifetime. Lifetime means: “My phone battery will last 3 years.” Remaining useful life means: “I’ve used my battery for a year and now it has 2 years left to last.”
Lifetime and remaining useful life are hard to predict. Why? Because the real world is messy! You don’t just have a nice simple lab with exactly 50° C of heat, no weather changes, and no humans dropping, throwing or crashing devices ’accidentally’. It’s hard to account for the probability of ANY of those issues happening sometime in the next year. That’s why startups exist just to predict the remaining useful life of important electronics (like electric car batteries).
Given all these steps, no wonder it’s complicated to figure out where these tests can be sped up! And amidst this complicated confusion, we still continue to see important innovations (like batteries) have slower development… whether that be for storing clean energy or just stopping your phone from dying.
In the next part of this series, I’ll dive deeper into understanding what electronics tests are SPECIFICALLY measuring. That’s the first step before finding possible approaches to speed up testing and start innovating faster!