Test it Like da Vinci
Timeless wisdom and new technologies are revolutionizing the world of testing, and bringing us from vision to finished product faster.
Do you see product testing and checking as a necessary evil? Then take some time to change your mind. In the long process between vision and reality of a product, intelligent and efficient testing is esential. The latest test and measurement equipment help develop a product when it only exists in our minds.
The latest trends in technology can help, bring these products to market faster. And together with a few timeless truths, which we turn to none other than Leonardo da Vinci.
The Renaissance was a spectacular time when the whole world of thought was turned upside down. Questions never before asked were pondered for the first time while cultural, scientific, and technological development quickened their pace as never before.
Among the many leading figures of the Renaissance, Leonardo da Vinci occupies a unique position. He was able, like almost no one before him (and very few since), to combine the beauty and elegance of art with technological progress and the inventive spirit.
Perhaps you have read that da Vinci had already conceived of numerous products from the modern era, such as the helicopter or parachute. As we survey the radical changes in society and technology of our time, we can sometimes feel very close to the great inventor. The world is being reinvented again today, and new solutions for the great questions of humanity must increasingly be solved through technology.
So it is worthwhile to look back at the advances and ideas that da Vinci showed us half a millennium ago. Although he never implemented many of his ideas in his lifetime, he did place a series of his inventions in operation - and made real progress.
He proceeded according to his own basic principles, which centered around orderly testing and checking of his own thoughts and drafts. These are ideas that help us with tests and testing projects in today's reality.
How is a product developed from the first vision and idea to its reality? Millions of engineers ask this question every day. That’s because the success of technology companies is based on technological innovation more today than ever in the past. Only new products with a high utility value will enable us to meet rising customer needs, as well as general social and political conditions.
This insight may seem to be based on today’s situation, but in reality, it is not new. Visionaries in technological development have always preferred practice over theory, and accomplished great things as a result.
Here are Leonardo da Vinci's five rules for testing:
1. Ask simple questions and stay curious.
Da Vinci was never content with what was obvious. He went through the world with open eyes, asking very simple questions like “Why can birds fly?” Let’s start our own development projects again with the simplest questions, which are often the hardest ones to answer. To make real progress, what often helps is not rethinking old products, but instead asking questions that produce something fundamentally new.
2. Describe things as they are.
Leonardo da Vinci was an artist, and a highly descriptive one with a keen sense of observation: he tried to see the world as it is. We should clear the slate in this manner before every test project, so that we describe things as they are, not based on our wishes and goals. In every test we conduct today, we are already making important assumptions simply by selecting the appropriate calculation filters. We should do this as thoroughly as possible so that later we will be guided by reality instead of our own ideas.
3. Measure your work.
Listen to da Vinci: “Before I begin my activity, I conduct experiments. I would like to learn through experience.” Da Vinci was an enemy of speculation. Tests and checks provide certainty.
4. Support your end customers.
However small our tests may be and however insignificant the work on one component, the end result will be a final product that must inspire customers. Leonardo da Vinci enjoyed supporting his customers. For example, he constructed unusual fountains. Technologically, they are masterpieces, but ultimately these inventions also served the purpose of supporting his customers at the time. A high-quality user experience or a product that is easy to work with - in these cases, also the only reliable path to success is the right tests and checks.
5. Be dynamic.
For da Vinci, the world was a dynamic system. He loved forces that keep everything in motion. What would he say about today’s highly dynamic world? We live in complex systems; we are mobile and always in motion.
In our tests as well, we are moving more and more from static analysis to dynamic tests that provide data with enormous predictive value. With the means and tools we have today, every engineer in the world is capable of becoming another da Vinci and making a contribution to technological progress.
Major Trends in Testing Today
The challenges involved in testing, from the initial idea to the finished product, are becoming more multifaceted. Consider the electric motor. To remain competitive with electric vehicles of the new century, manufacturers must offer their customers maximum comfort with maximum range. Along with improvements to batteries, one of the recipes for success is to boost the energy conversion efficiency of the inverter and motor. Only a company that is able to test these individual components reliably will be able to position a successful product on the market for the overall result: an electric car.
Or consider lightweight construction. New, much lighter materials made of fiber composites are being used in more and more products. Engineers today have nearly unlimited possibilities for working with these materials. But how do these materials behave in reality? How durable are they? How do they have to be designed to produce successful products, from cars and aircraft to consumer goods?
What about medical engineering? More and more products are being used inside the human body. Our bodies are a complex system that responds sensitively to external influences, let alone implants. Modern test benches attempt to better simulate this complexity to provide the best possible final products for medicine. Without high quality sensor systems, especially intelligent DAQ and software systems, this is not possible.
Live power visualization with simultaneous continuous storage using the GEN3i.
And the same rule applies here - to be master of your trade, you must be skilled at testing your components. So it is no surprise that the right choice of measurement technology (referring in this case to sensors, data acquisition systems, and matching software) is becoming a fundamental factor in determining the market success of a product. Success is only possible if the instruments are perfectly integrated into the development cycle.
It follows that these are changing times for measurement technology. Completely new solutions are needed, as the conventional measurement solutions are no longer adequate.
Let’s continue with the example of electric motors. Until recently, energy conversion efficiency was calculated using power analyzers and oscilloscopes - a method that was “good enough” for a long time, but is no longer practical today due to the great technological challenges.
For example, mechanical and electrical data are collected separately and cannot be synchronized. To squeeze the last bit of efficiency out of electric motors, test bench users need an actual view of reality (to stay with one of da Vinci's rules). And this view is only possible through access to the raw data in the measurement system, which is not shown by power analyzers together with oscilloscopes. Because of this, a more advanced solution with all data recorded synchronously, and full access to the raw data, is needed.
Generally speaking, we see three major trends today in testing of products on their way from vision to reality.
1. Testing is becoming (partially) virtual.
Good advice is often expensive, especially in the early phase of product development when ideas are still being collected and evaluated. And frequently, it is also not worthwhile yet to conduct long series of tests.
Virtual fatigue and load tests represent a fascinating alternative here. Initial tests based on CAE data can be performed with the right software to guide a product from the (virtual) version to (physical) reality even faster.
da Vinci sketched the boldest ideas of his time with pen and paper, a source of fascination for our minds and perceptions. What would he say about the possibilities of the computer and Internet age? We suspect he would also rely on virtual tests in development today. This is another element for enhancing innovation in product development.
2. Testing is becoming as flexible as product development.
Flexibility and speed are becoming even more important in testing. Expensive test benches should be well utilized. More and more measurements are being conducted synchronously or in extremely tight cycles. This calls for a data acquisition system as flexible as the tests themselves.
3. Testing doesn’t take place only on test benches now.
Measurements on test benches are an essential element of product development. But they are not everything. And continuing in the spirit of da Vinci, to develop to the point and magnitude of series production, we must also test in reality.
A test bench always incorporates certain assumptions about the reality or application of a product. We make these assumptions based on the best of our abilities, yet the actual application conditions, which determine the success or failure of a product, may be completely different.
This is why tests on the actual object in a real application are becoming a more important part of development work. New, mobile, measuring amplifier systems are the response to this demand. They ensure precision in mobile applications, are compact, and extremely robust. These systems are also very easy to control and parameterize with powerful software.
Some companies go so far as to install mobile measuring amplifiers and sensors in vehicles actually used by their customers (for example, an excavator). This gives them continuous data about the actual application conditions of their vehicles, which stand in sharp contrast to their test bench assumptions in some cases. Integrating reality into your measurements in this way will make it much easier to plan the next generation of vehicles and products, resulting in new products that are much better adapted to users’ actual requirements. This would again be a step in turning visions into reality, and improving our own inventions little by little.
Observing reality is not limited to “mobile” products like cars, construction vehicles, aircraft, or the railway. The same basic principle also applies to existing infrastructure objects such as bridges and pipelines - measuring instead of speculating. Modern structural health monitoring systems based on fiber Bragg technology are the right answer to this question. From virtual tests with clever component checks on a test bench with the latest DAQ systems, to application tests in actual operation, products are becoming ever more complex and the technological challenges are far-reaching. Modern measurement technology instruments help make products continuously better and bring them to market faster.
And they make real progress possible. Is it any surprise that Leonardo da Vinci’s futuristic inventions did not become reality until our time? It’s no surprise at all. We have the ways and means to guide our products to success. And we have tests to give us certainty.
This article was first published in NASA Tech Briefs, www.techbriefs.com.