About Reliability Testing

The purpose of reliability testing is to discover potential problems with the design as early as possible and, ultimately, provide confidence that the system meets its reliability requirements.

Reliability testing may be performed at several levels, component, circuit board, unit, assembly, subsystem and system levels. For example, performing environmental stress screening tests at lower levels, such as component level or small assemblies, catches problems before they cause failures at higher levels. Testing proceeds during each level of integration through system testing, developmental testing, and operational testing, thereby reducing program risk.

System reliability is calculated at each test level. Reliability growth techniques and failure reporting, analysis and corrective active systems (FRACAS) are often employed to improve reliability as testing progresses. The drawbacks to such extensive testing are time and expense. Customers may choose to accept more risk by eliminating some or all lower levels of testing.

Another type of tests are called Sequential Probability Ratio type of tests. These tests use both a statistical type 1 and type 2 error, combined with a discrimination ratio as main input (together with the R requirement). This test (see for examples mil. std. 781) sets – Independently – before the start of the test both the risk of incorrectly accepting a bad design (Type 2 error) and the risk of incorrectly rejecting a good design (type 1 error) together with the discrimination ratio and the required minimum reliability parameter. The test is therefore more controllable and provides more information for a quality and business point of view. The number of test samples is not fixed, but it is said that this test is in general more efficient (requires less samples) and provides more information than for example zero failure testing.

It is not always feasible to test all system requirements. Some systems are prohibitively expensive to test; some failure modes may take years to observe; some complex interactions result in a huge number of possible test cases; and some tests require the use of limited test ranges or other resources. In such cases, different approaches to testing can be used, such as accelerated life testing, design of experiments, and simulations.

The desired level of statistical confidence also plays an important role in reliability testing. Statistical confidence is increased by increasing either the test time or the number of items tested. Reliability test plans are designed to achieve the specified reliability at the specified confidence level with the minimum number of test units and test time. Different test plans result in different levels of risk to the producer and consumer. The desired reliability, statistical confidence, and risk levels for each side influence the ultimate test plan. Good test requirements ensure that the customer and developer agree in advance on how reliability requirements will be tested.

A key aspect of reliability testing is to define “failure”. Although this may seem obvious, there are many situations where it is not clear whether a failure is really the fault of the system. Variations in test conditions, operator differences, weather, and unexpected situations create differences between the customer and the system developer. One strategy to address this issue is to use a scoring conference process. A scoring conference includes representatives from the customer, the developer, the test organization, the reliability organization, and sometimes independent observers. The scoring conference process is defined in the statement of work. Each test case is considered by the group and “scored” as a success or failure. This scoring is the official result used by the reliability engineer.

As part of the requirements phase, the reliability engineer develops a test strategy with the customer. The test strategy makes trade-offs between the needs of the reliability organization, which wants as much data as possible, and constraints such as cost, schedule, and available resources. Test plans and procedures are developed for each reliability test, and results are documented in official reports.

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