Understanding risk management of test and measurement programs

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By Nick Butler, head of aerospace and defense marketing, National Instruments

Every year sees the aerospace and defense markets face an increasing amount of budget pressures and project risks. Similar to the operations of their commercial and industrial counterparts, design and development budgets tighten as the product complexity increases. Tendering a winning bid in an environment of intense competitive pressures, significant technical complexities, and an acceptance of increased delegated risks can make for some serious decision-making. If those factors don’t create enough challenges, the further likelihood is that you’ll need to deliver against short lead times.

Program project managers face the unenviable task of juggling budgets, creating realistic product development schedules, and attempting to coincide delivery against the customer’s project timeline. The commercial pressures and the potential financial consequences of missed deadlines weigh heavily as significant risks on the project manager’s mind.

Technical development

Aside from all project pressures highlighted above, it is easy to lose sight of the technical development needs, which for most aerospace projects today require significant innovation and development months. Wrapped up within the development schedules there needs to be an adequate allowance for testing. As technical complexity increases, so do the need for a more comprehensive and coherent test regime, something that might prove challenging to incorporate into the schedule yet still presents a notable risk if not done correctly.

In the past, many aerospace contractors have worked on the basis that they would develop the test plans and any necessary test rigs once the initial product development was complete. This approach may have worked in former times, but the strict time constraints of today’s aerospace and defense projects make it unworkable.

By implementing a test strategy that goes alongside the product development cycle helps to mitigate the associated risks of missed deadlines, financial penalties, and technical problems. Risk can exist anywhere within the design, production, and deployment of a product.

Understanding risks

A clear understanding of the risks, and where they exist in the development and test cycles is necessary so they can be fully understood and reduced. There is also the potential upside since test routines performed during the development process might assist in highlighting a competitive edge to the product’s features or pave the way for faster deployment. Integrating test as an intrinsic part of the design and development cycle is a prudent step that encourages development and test teams to work alongside each other. In this way, development cycles can be more efficient, test coverage maximized, and project schedules kept on track.

Not only should the test function be integrated alongside development, but a better understanding of how it delivers value to the business may prove invaluable. There is a mindset change to understand how the test function contributes to the overall business. It is much more than a necessary and costly process. Viewing test in terms of the popular business metric of the total cost of ownership (TCO) can aid how the test team or department operates along with supporting the basis for test equipment investments.

Core cost components

In general, there are three core cost components that managers should consider when calculating a TCO. There are the development costs of hardware and software tools, which may involve some of the initial product design validation as well as testing the design during the prototype, design, and production cycles. There are the deployment costs associated with the hardware and software, and, the operational and maintenance costs of running the systems.

The development costs typically tend to be the smaller proportion of test TCO. However, the costs can mount up, mainly when custom test hardware and software are made for each project, although the more complex the test requirements, the more costly the development can become. Deployment costs of the test setup to different production facilities and customer sites can proof significant, but the TCO element with the highest percentage is usually that of the operation and maintenance costs. The service life of the vast majority of aerospace and defense platform projects can be more than 20 years, often beyond the expected life of many of the items of test equipment designed or purchased. Component obsolescence, software maintenance, and on-going equipment calibration involve not only the respective materials costs but that of having staff dedicated to looking after the process and engineering resources to implement updates and changes.

Insight of your test TCO provides a more holistic and informed view of how your test team and function adds value to your product design and development business. It also helps in the decision-making process for investment. Traditionally custom-built test equipment was seen as the only viable option to meet the testing requirements. However, that involved a separate development schedule together with calibration before any features of the product requiring test could be completed, increasing the time-to-market date.

Minimize the risks

Increasingly, commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) test equipment is a viable method of equipping the test team. COTS is particularly beneficial in many areas of electronics where sophisticated technologies with industry specifications and protocols are present, such as in wireless technologies. Also, the combination of field-programmable gate arrays and wide bandwidth radio transceivers and analyzers have enabled a software-defined radio (SDR) approach that offers immense flexibility to speed testing of any RF-based product. Purchasing COTS SDR equipment provides a cost-effective method of acquiring specialist testbeds without the development costs or specialist skills to design it. Further, purchasing from trusted vendors means the on-going maintenance and design support for future standards is taken care of by the vendor, removing the overhead from the in-house test team. In turn, this helps minimize the risks within the test and development process that a custom rig may not function according to specifications. Interpreting complex wireless spectrum standards, modulation methods, and data protocols, for example, is best left to the experts that are working with them every day and have direct links with the issuing standards bodies.

In this article, we’ve highlighted just some of the ways aerospace and defense companies can manage the risks during development and test. By establishing the test team alongside the development function, promotes a proactive and inclusive approach to its benefits. Also, changing the mindset to how the test function is budgeted for and operates by investigating its TCO makes for more informed investments. The use of COTS testbeds and equipment can remove substantial risks through the use of industry-qualified and accredited equipment from specialist test vendors.

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