What is environmental simulation testing? Simply put, simulated test environments are all about preparing products for real-world use. This is accomplished by gaining as much testing experience and performance data as early as possible during the products’ lifecycles. Simulated environmental testing usually involves creating artificial environments for test items to determine their expected resilience to their anticipated environments.
A classic example of environmental simulation testing involves testing components for satellites. Components intended for use on satellites face recurring changes between temperature extremes several times per 24-hour period. When components are in direct sunlight, they may reach temperatures up to 120 deg C. When they are in the shadow, they may cool to temperatures of -100 deg C. A satellite which orbits the earth approximately 14 times per day will experience over 50,000 thermal cycles between these extremes in its lifetime! Cycling between extremes tends to change material properties and wear equipment out prematurely.
The components of satellites that take the worst form of thermal cycling abuse are the solar panels. Solar panels are made from many layers of materials and are directly exposed to sunlight. This makes the parts especially susceptible to thermal stresses. Solar panels are also highly important parts since they power the satellite, meaning the life of any given satellite is directly dependent on how long solar panels last while in service. The longer a satellite can last, the more cost-effective its operation.
In order to predict the anticipated lifetime of solar cells (also known as coupons), NTS has conducted tests on different solar cells to simulate the kind of temperature cycling that would be experienced while in orbit. In one of our tests, we placed some coupons in a chamber with an atmosphere of nitrogen and used a special lamp to heat them up. Followed by heating, we rapidly chilled the nitrogen atmosphere to cool the coupons.
This process was repeated multiple times in rapid succession to simulate about 1.5 times the number of anticipated thermal cycles during a satellite’s lifetime. Some types of coupons survived the test, and others did not. However, our testing helped us confirm the best candidate materials and exclude those that were most likely to fail too early in the satellite’s lifecycle to be acceptable .
Environmental testing sounds simple enough in theory, but there are some real challenges when trying to design a product for its environment. How are engineers supposed to predict how given product designs will perform before they have been in actual service for a certain time period? Without some type of carefully planned environmental testing strategy, designing for the operating environment is educated guesswork at best.
There is simply too much risk involved with releasing untested or marginally tested products to market. On the other hand, time to market is a real concern to companies that wish to remain competitive. In other words, companies don’t have enough time to build prototypes and test them over their intended lifecycle with normal use before releasing them to market. This is why better strategies are required — preferably environmental testing strategies that can reliably and sufficiently accelerate the aging and wear placed on test items.
Over 50 years of testing gives NTS the experience needed to help predict anticipated product performance with a reasonable degree of confidence. Most of these methods fall under the generic category of simulated environment testing since the simulated test environments attempt to produce the anticipated types of stress on products. Such testing attempts to validate or improve product designs and manufacturing processes.
Certain environmental simulation testing methods can actually go far beyond any environmental conditions that products are expected to experience in order to prove increased degrees of robustness and reliability. Whatever the case, simulated test environments are intended to verify that products are ready for customers by ensuring that they can withstand their intended environments.
There are several good reasons for your company to perform environmental simulation testing, and it’s especially important to the overall success of your business. These reasons include:
The iPhone 6 and iPhone 6Plus are well-known cases where environmental testing could have caught a design flaw. These phones were known to bend and break as people were accustomed to carrying them in their back pockets. The new designs should have been evaluated in all environments, including the back pocket.
Based on these reasons alone, perhaps the question becomes: why not perform environmental testing?
In cases where environmental testing is not required by contract or law, the biggest benefits are gained by increasing product reliability and decreasing risk associated with product development. But what about cost?
When it comes to environmental testing, some costs can be quantified and others cannot. The costs that can be quantified are the estimated cost of environmental testing versus the total cost of recalls, warranty claims, lost productivity, and other losses incurred by defective products. These are values that can be quantified from existing data. The benefits of environmental testing rely on business dynamics that don’t exist before an environmental testing program is implemented, and competitors are unlikely to share any internal data about these matters.
The best way to see if a simulated environment testing program is financially viable is to see if the estimated cost of testing is acceptably less than the total cost of failures. Simulated environmental testing introduces negligible risk into production lifecycles and is also likely to reduce overall risk.
In an ideal case, implementing an environmental testing program would enable a company to reduce product development time, theoretically reducing development costs at the same time. Once a product is developed, the company should understand the product’s life expectancy and be able to reduce the amount of warranty claims due to enhanced quality. This reduces maintenance and customer support costs. Since better products tend to produce more customer satisfaction, sales should also increase. All of these benefits add up to greater profitability for your company.
To reinforce this idea even more, customers tend to fixate on negative characteristics as opposed to positive characteristics. And because bad news travels quickly and efficiently, companies must invest in upholding their name and reputation. One way to invest in upholding your company’s name and reputation is to invest in continuous product improvement. To invest in continuous product improvement, you can consider investing in the types of testing that will enable realistic design validation and facilitate effective quality control.
When you spend your time and money on properly validating products, your bottom line is less likely to be negatively impacted by lawsuits, bad reviews, bad press, and disgruntled customers.
Over the decades, environmental testing engineers have contrived many types of tests designed to simulate the types of wear and tear that environments are expected to inflict upon the items of interest. Frequently, environmental simulation testing involves attempts to speed up the wear and tear process to the point where a given test item may experience a full lifetime’s worth of wear and tear within a few days or weeks. This is exactly what we achieved when testing solar cells for satellites.
Sometimes, companies may utilize certain types of testing equipment to demonstrate the durability of their products. In one example, Ford Motor Company worked with NTS to use one of our centrifuges in order to demonstrate the strength of their F150 series pickup truck. Their mantra is “Built Tough,” which is why Ford wanted to highlight the durability of its products. Ford asked us to swing one of its 2008 F150 pickups around on one of our large centrifuges using the truck’s front tow hooks. The goal was to demonstrate that the tow hooks, as well as the rest of the truck, could withstand 6gs of force. This demonstration was used in Ford’s 2008 Superbowl commercial.
Even if you don’t manufacture cars, different applications require different types of testing. This is where NTS comes into the picture. In the world of simulated environmental testing, our engineers can simulate many types of conditions. Here are some examples.
NTS engineers are experts at contriving simulated test environments to include any combination of testing methods. We can customize them according to your needs.
If you have any questions about how an environmental testing program can help your business, contact our team today.