Finding Innovation Through Failure

Why seeking out problems in the product lifecycle process is an essential step in the engineering process.

Technology products are only effective if they work—not occasionally, but all the time, and in any possible scenario. This is particularly true for next-generation vehicles. The vehicles are characterized by a series of digital safety features, including automatic emergency breaking, blind spot warning, pedestrian detection, electronic stability control, lane departure avoidance and more. Known collectively as advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS), the innovations are meant to mitigate the potential of human error in driving, and thus reduce accidents. For technologies that function to literally save lives, categorical efficacy is imperative.

So before next-generation vehicles make it on the road, the technologies they’re equipped with go through rigorous testing. Dr. Furea Shirai is one of the people responsible for designing and executing those tests. Shirai works at NI, a technology company that develops automated test and measurement systems and virtual instrumentation software for a range of industries, from transportation to wireless infrastructure to aerospace. As a senior program manager in the company’s ADAS sector, Shirai partners with car manufactures to ensure automated safety features will keep people protected. She and her team help these firms test everything from software interoperability to whether a radar can recognize the difference between a human and a plastic bag. “We want to make sure that the systems respond the way they’re supposed to,” she said.

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To do so, they take what might be considered an unexpected approach: The engineers actually seek out problems in the tech. They look for every possible way a system may break, miscalculate or misfire, often even introducing variables meant to trigger malfunctions. To take one example, Shirai’s team intentionally stalled a fan, just to see how the car would respond. And it’s not just a feature of automotive manufacturing, but rather all engineering sectors. This method—finding failure in one’s own products—may seem counterintuitive, but it’s actually an essential step in the pursuit of groundbreaking innovations.

Why is it important to find failure during the testing process?

Dr. Taylor L. Riché

NI Software Section Manager 
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“One quote that has been attributed to Thomas Edison is, ‘I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 things that didn’t work.’ And I think it’s important in the mind of an engineer to understand that, really, it’s about tolerance for failure to get to an end goal,” said Charles Schroeder, a business and technology fellow at NI. “The ultimate goal is not to find failure. The goal is to create an amazing breakthrough product. But if you’re not willing to have failure or to root it out, you’ll never get there.”

The essentials of the engineering process

According to Schroeder, the engineering process typically starts with an idea, often arising from a problem or an unmet customer need. Engineers then brainstorm different ways to address it. “Once you get an idea, then you need to frame it both technically and commercially,” he said. “What are the things we know and don’t know about the technology to find a solution.”

This ideation then leads engineers to creating a prototype—something of a first draft of a product or service. It’s at this stage that the testing begins.

How are software data and analytics involved in the testing process?

Dr. Taylor L. Riché

NI Software Section Manager 
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“Test is a key part to engineering and to solving these problems because, at the end of the day, you have to show that your solution actually works,” said Dr. Taylor Riché, a software engineer and section manager at NI. “If you don't have a robust test program to go along with the engineering of your product, you're really going to fail.”

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Test across a product lifecycle is not a simple process—it’s not meant to be. Engineers have to try to forecast any possible point of failure. Imagine trying to design the technology that supports 5G wireless infrastructure and having to protect against every possible disruption to the network. It’s common for engineers to have reconceptualize and redesign prototypes countless times before a product is ready for market. “It seems like getting the first idea to work might be the most challenging part, but no, it’s that nasty backend of refining and refining and refining so that you can build a hundred million copies with really high quality,” Schroeder said.

It’s this tricky yet essential stage in the innovation process that NI software is designed to support.

What are the benefits of finding failure early?

Cheryl Tulkoff

NI Director of Corporate Quality
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How software supports innovation

Today, advanced software plays a fundamental part in supporting the product lifecycle process. For example, in order to test ADAS features in a safety vehicle, automotive companies need a way to record and monitor the sensors on a test drive. That’s where NI comes in, explained Shirai. The company’s software aids in documenting performance information, which is then used to make improvements to the technology in the vehicle. “The software is integral to gathering the data and evaluating it,” said Cheryl Tulkoff, director of corporate quality and continuous improvement at NI. “In the failure analysis process, it's how you determine what didn't behave right.”

What is the difference between physical and virtual testing?

Cheryl Tulkoff

NI Director of Corporate Quality
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Meanwhile, sometimes software does the assessments on its own, without a prototype. A testing process called digital engineering, or model-based engineering, is becoming more prevalent, explained Riché, in which innovators create a model for how a physical device will perform using only software—allowing innovators to test products more efficiently and cost-effectively. Riché cites a plane as an example. “If a plane model that’s being tested fails in the air, even if no one’s on it, that is millions and millions of dollars that are gone. But if it fails as a [software] model in a test, you don’t lose any equipment. You’ve found that failure early,” he said.

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It’s those moments of failure—enabled by analytics-based testing throughout the product lifecycle—that lay the foundation for the true objective: safe and effective world-changing technologies.

“In innovation, if you never fail, you're probably not trying hard enough,” said Tulkoff. “It’s a mindset that needs to be integrated very early, ‘how can I make this fail?’ Because looking for weak spots or places where things are vulnerable is only way to truly develop technologies that are built to last.”