The Product Entrepreneur

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Introduction: This series of articles is directed toward the entrepreneur or business and is focused on products as opposed to services. The goal of this series is to provide you with the background needed to bring your idea from wild thought to a product ready for market.

The writer has over 30 years experience in industry and product development, is a member of the Board of Directors of Inventors North West and is a member of the Product Development Management Association. He has a BS in engineering, an MBA and is a certified 6 sigma Black Belt. He is a principal in a Bend firm that provides machine design, product design and development services (www.herrickprodev.com). His email contact is john@herrickprodev.com.

Article VIII: Product Validation Testing
While it is easy to say that many of the phases of your project are the most critical, assuring the suitability of your product through the proper testing is vital. This testing does several things. One, it assures that certain industry standards are satisfied by your product. Two, it determines the overall quality of your product (good quality or bad). And three, it allows your product to display applicable certifications which are very valuable in marketing.

One of my responsibilities for a decade was the management and operation of a product validation testing lab. In that lab we performed a variety of tests on electro-mechanical products. Those tests used environmental chambers, vibration tables, dust exposure, salt fog and a variety of others. The goal was, on one hand, to meet the prescribed requirements for that industry. And on the other hand, we “wanted” to see a failure. We wanted to find the product’s weaknesses. We wanted to find it. We did not want our customer to find it.

In each industry, as we’ve written about previously, there are typically specific requirements that a candidate product must satisfy. In the automotive industry the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) has determined those testing requirements and is the go-to organization for such specifications. Their test specifications will cover mechanical, electrical and even appearance items. I’m working on a product currently that falls within the arena of oral hygiene. I would expect that the ADA (American Dental Association) or perhaps the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) will have an influence on the validation tests necessary to certify this product.

We need to understand that the purpose of product testing is not merely to meet certain industry or application requirements. The real purpose is to ensure that you shake the product down before your customer gets it in their hands. This means that simply satisfying the industry tests is not enough. You need to identify other means by which your product will be used and devise suitable tests for those. You also need to devise tests that will determine if the product has been manufactured correctly.

So, let’s look at an example. You have come up with a product that requires a highly water resistant closure or lid. You know that there are a series of tests that expose a product to varying amounts and conditions of water. The end result will be that you can then award your product an IP (Immersion Protection) rating per a recognized standard. But wait, your product has a lid that is repeatedly opened and closed. There is no standard for “opening and closing” but you do want to ensure that your lid will function correctly for 1,000 repeated openings and closings.

You need to then devise and conduct a test, on a statistically significant number of samples, in which you perform 1,000 openings and closings. Now, you will not be able to stamp some nifty certification on your literature, but you will know that your product will not fail during repeated lid actuations. One very important note: Tests that you devise to evaluate specific product characteristics are indeed based upon your best judgement of how the product will be used by the customer. How well you judge the means of actual use are obviously critical and, yes, you will mess up once in a while.

What happens if you find a failure in testing? Let’s say that after 50 actuations, your test showed the first failure. Your job, or that of your consultant, is to determine why. Wrong material? Design inadequate? Assembly incorrect? Test designed poorly? It is better to find it under these circumstances than to have it fail in use by the customer.

How about the testing facility? There are a number of certified testing labs through the United States and most of the developed nations. These labs will be certified to UL (Underwriters Lab) standards, A2LA (American Association of Laboratory Accreditation) or others. Just because a lab has one of these certifications does not mean that they can do the tests you need. You still need to ask those questions and find a suitable operation.

Also, in some instances, only a lab with a certain certification may do these needed tests. That is, many labs will have the know how and equipment, but the certifying organization (that is the organization which will certify your product) will only accept results from a lab that also has this certification. This is quite common in Europe.

Next month we’ll talk about production and ensuring good product quality.

John Herrick, Jr. can be reached 503-799-3580, jhunterh2001@yahoo.com. He is a principal in a local design and product development firm (www.smithherrick.com). The company’s focus is on electro-mechanical design and product development.

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