Five Challenges to Building a Test Center

September 7, 2021

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Matt Jorgensen, Director of Facility Engineering and Site Management at ACS leads a class "Five Challenges to Building a Test Center"

You’ve developed a great product. Now it’s time to put it to the test. Testing facilities can be complex or simple—as big as a building or as small as a single test cell. No matter what kind of project you’re planning, there are five challenges ACS designers see cropping up again and again. Plan ahead to meet these challenges head on. Then accept the pats on the back when the project comes in on budget and on deadline.

  1. Sticking to a budget. Whether it’s a large test center or a single test cell, there is almost always tension between what users want and what the company can afford. Imagine you are building a house. The plans start basic enough—number of bedrooms, number of bathrooms, total square footage. Then your spouse says, “Wouldn’t it be nice to have a gourmet kitchen?” Your kids point out how cool it would be to have a game room in the basement. Before you know it, those “wouldn’t it be nice” features have blown your budget out of the water. The same thing happens when companies build a test facility. The budget is set by the executives in the office, but then the users chime in with “wouldn’t it be nice.” “Sometimes the things people want seem very minor, like they wouldn’t be expensive at all,” said Matt Jorgensen, Director of Facility Engineering and Site Management at ACS. “They say something like, ‘we need it to run just two degrees colder.’ That sounds easy, but there could be hundreds of thousands of dollars in mechanical equipment behind that.” To keep the project on budget, be very clear about the scope at the outset. Designing the test cell for easy expansion makes today’s needs the priorities while keeping “nice to have” features on the table for the future.
  2. Managing the project. When designing equipment, it’s important to get early input from the groups who will be using it. The best way for your company to prevent scope or feature creep is to appoint a strong project manager from your staff to be the point of contact between those users and your ACS team. This staffer should be someone with a solid understanding of the budget and the project’s intent. They can distinguish between user wants and project needs. “You need one person the design team can go to and say, ‘If you add this feature, it’s going to do this to your budget.’ And that person needs to be able to say no to the feature, or modify the scope, or request additional funds,” Jorgensen said. “When you don’t have that, all the program users ask for what they want and the design typically comes in over budget. Then you need to rescope the project, which costs more, or modify the design, which delays the build.”
  3. Designing in the right order. When building a new facility, companies often start with the architectural design and work inward. Test cells are technically complex. When the test cell designer has to work within the footprint of existing blueprints, making everything fit can be like playing a multimillion-dollar game of Tetris. When contracting for a new building, start with the equipment and test cell design first. The architect then knows the technical requirements for the space and can design rooms, access points, and mechanical spaces around them.
  4. Budgeting for reliability. It’s a fact of business: budgets get cut. When that happens, there are typically two options: trim the scope or ‘value engineer’ the design. “When you need it to cost less but you still want the same scope and functions, the only way to do that is to value engineer the systems until they’re cost effective enough to fit within the budget,” Jorgensen said. Unfortunately, cheaper systems are often less robust. Test equipment works hard, and it’s not useful unless it’s reliable. At ACS, we recommend against value engineering. Cutting corners at the beginning of the project often ends up more expensive in the long run as pieces wear out or break down prematurely.
  5. Designing for a second life. The typical research and development program lasts three to eight years or less. The challenge to test cell designers is creating a cell that can be repurposed to test different products after the program ends. One ACS client provides a list of similar testing requirements every time they upgrade or build a new test cell. They don’t usually need all of the features for any one product but want to be able to run multiple products through the same cell. Jorgensen recalls one large project that had the rug pulled from under it just as it was ready to launch. The test cells had just come online when the R&D project they were built for was canceled. Fortunately, there was enough flexibility designed into the cells they could be quickly modified to repurpose for another program. A robust testing facility is critical to building high-quality products. Construction will never be without its headaches, but being prepared for the most common challenges gives you a head start in beating them.

Bottom line, before you start planning your new test facility, reach out to consult with our experts who have the skills, knowledge and experience to help you accomplish your test center goals.

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