Robotic process automation optimizes test instrumentation

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Article by: Andrew Herrera, Keysight Technologies

Robotic process automation can help reduce repetitive and manual work involved in testing, such as clicking software or swapping test instruments.

Product innovation fuels demand for new features and drives up the cost of research and development (R&D). Electronics companies spend a lot of money on components, labor, and testing as part of the R&D process. The tests cover all phases of R&D. When incorporating a new design element into a product, manufacturers must test the performance of the element. If they replace a small component with a cheaper or better performing component, they have to test again.

This applies not only to components, but also to software. As many products are software controlled, performance is based on the allowable outputs of the design measured by software. In wireless solutions, this can be an additional step in R&D. To ensure that they do not exceed the restrictions set by wireless standards, there are often many repetitive tests to perform.

Design, testing, and verification are time-consuming, repetitive, and expensive. Design validation engineers must ensure that their solution designs perform well in demanding environments while minimizing manufacturing costs and verification steps. As you can see in Figure 1, this is a type of product lifecycle development. Each step requires testing, debugging, and verification.

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Figure 1: Example of product life cycle development.

Many applications use automation to increase efficiency. Robotic process automation (RPA) can help reduce repetitive and manual work involved in testing, such as clicking software or swapping test instruments. RPA speeds hardware validation by allowing engineers to work on other projects or tasks during repetitive testing. Before assessing whether RPA saves time for design validation engineers, we must first understand testing and the associated costs.

Hardware Verification Testing Time and Cost

When it comes to the time and cost required to test designs, there are many repetitive tasks:

• test the hardware under conditions that simulate real environments

• check equipment to ensure that it complies with specifications, user expectations and local environmental regulations

• debugging hardware to ensure it will perform as expected under normal and abnormal conditions

• ensure that appropriate security measures are in place and operating in accordance with appropriate safety and security standards

The time and cost of each test varies depending on the project or task at hand. Assume three hours per test as an example. Using the four examples above, that would represent 12 hours of engineer time spent on four tests. This estimate assumes that engineers performed all steps correctly, that every measurement went as planned, and that there were no errors during instrumentation changes and adjustments. Otherwise, a test can range from three hours to four or five. Automating an engineer’s repetitive processes can save a lot of time.

Validation engineers perform each measurement in a configured environment, then shut down and configure the next environment and run the same tests again. They repeat this process until they have tested each scenario. Figure 2 shows an example hardware verification workflow on a device under test. Throughout the process, engineers must turn off test instruments, change probes and hardware, and adjust settings. Not all tests use the same instruments or software and changing these items may delay testing.

Picture 2: Example of a hardware verification workflow on a device under test.

No two test environments are the same, there are multiple manufacturing test instruments on an engineer’s test bed. Which can lead to testing issues due to unsupported software or instruments. In such cases, this results in more time per task due to changing instrumentation or wasted time having to order new compatible instrumentation, as well as cost.

Expanding to 10 or 20 tasks per configuration can delay your project and increase costs. We start to see the true cost of development and verification testing in R&D as we dig deeper into each task, but we see a common cost issue with every test: time.

Save time on hardware verification testing

Every business owner knows that when a project or task takes a long time, it means more money spent. However, rushing or taking shortcuts in checking engineering hardware could lead to catastrophic failures. Therefore, the best way to reduce the time spent on each task is to complete the task more efficiently. High-volume test environments demand efficiency. Measurement steps should focus on execution speed. To optimize testing, developers need to have everything under control. Test engineers know several obstacles to optimization:

• Instrumentation solutions may come from multiple manufacturers.

• Preconfigured analysis routines often lack speed and flexibility.

• Test software applications perform more measurements than necessary.

• Using equipment with parallel analysis can be complex and inefficient.

Every step of the test carries a risk of human error. Within the limits of optimization, there is a risk of errors when changing instruments or between measurements when inputs are incorrect. Doing a lot of tedious and repetitive tasks can cause engineers to overlook small procedures. These seemingly minor issues can create significant errors in test verification, leading to a high risk of human error.

When these errors occur, engineers spend more time retesting, which means more development costs and more time spent on R&D. RPA can help speed up debugging and validation while minimizing the risk of human error. Automation eliminates the risk of overlooking small adjustments as it executes every step, no matter how tedious.

Let’s evaluate RPA in a world of test instrumentation. RPA must allow the configuration and construction of complex workflows via configuration. If automation requires engineers to activate changes, it is not efficient. With this in mind, if an engineer is not nearby, the software automation should allow remote access so that someone can check the status of the test and activate any parameter changes. Using test instruments from multiple manufacturers adds another automation challenge and barrier to optimization.

Finally, all of these requirements are difficult on their own, but if an engineer has to write all the code to enable this process, it adds more cost, time, and inefficiency. Thus, the automation software must allow recording, playback and sharing of the automation test, all without manually written software code.

Engineers take many hours to perform different measurements during a test. RPA can help them perform repetitive testing by changing instrumentation measurement settings or switching between software applications to take different measurements. This increases performance and efficiency, allowing test engineers to focus on their next project. That 12 hours on four tasks can become 12 hours on eight tasks by cutting test times in half and finishing projects on time or even sooner. In manufacturing, better utilization of test time provides better return on investment.

RPA is ideal for test instrumentation

In addition to increasing the efficiency of test tasks, automation enables better employee performance. The many hours spent on repetitive tasks create stress and affect performance. As automation enables better performance and better results, engineers can work on multiple projects without fear of delays or missed performance targets.

Integrating RPA into your test instrument environment can help increase innovation through hardware verification and testing and improve innovation productivity through employee satisfaction. RPA is not something to be feared or avoided when using test instruments, but to be adopted and incorporated for repetitive testing tasks. RPA can save us time, it’s a resource we can’t recover.

Learn about robotic process automation in a test environment with Keysight Technologies PathWave Instrument Robotic Process Automation Software.

About the Author

Andrew Herrera is an experienced Product Marketing Specialist in Radio Frequency and Internet of Things solutions. Andrew is currently Product Marketing Manager for RF Test Software at Keysight Technologies, leader in PathWave 89600 Vector Signal Analyzer, Signal Generation and X-Series measurement applications. Andrew also helps lead automation test software such as PathWave Measurements and PathWave Instrument RPA.

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