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Designing Electronics for Harsh Conditions: The Importance of Environmental Testing

Closeup on electronic motherboard with orange and blue overlay

It’s one of the great tropes of classic television and movies. Due to a short circuit, over-heating, or a sudden splash of water, vital electronics—usually computers or servers—start shooting off sparks in dramatic fashion. Onlookers then rush in with a fire extinguisher to limit the damage. The scenes often signify a disaster point in the story, either an uh-oh moment for protagonists or a crucial turning of the tide against the bad guys.

While they lack the theatrics of Hollywood, these scenarios play out in real life from time-to-time. Notably, mobile phones, laptops, and even hoverboards have made headlines for catching fire or exploding. Companies have paid dearly in legal fees, fines, and product recalls, not to mention the reputational damage that resulted from the incidents.

In each case, the manufacturers failed somewhere along the way, often in properly testing the lithium-ion batteries. Fire is just one of many harsh conditions they need to account for, but hardly the only one. There are physical harsh conditions like vibrations or drops, environmental conditions like extreme heat, cold, and/or humidity.

The goal of testing is two-fold: to understand the failure points of your products and to prevent them. That’s why although the materials matter quite a bit as it pertains to designing electronics, testing plays a crucial role in determining if and how long those electronics hold up.


Testing in Harsh Conditions

A cell phone catching fire is an easy example to grasp the concept of testing for harsh conditions and why it’s essential to your design, but there’s a more general purpose. You need your products to not only hold up when accidents happen—think of a tablet sitting in water or dropping a phone onto the sidewalk—but across different climates and environments around the world.

The product should work the same in the freezing cold of Minnesota, the dry heat of Arizona, the humidity of the Gulf Coast, and so on. To find that out, you’ll put each component of the electronics, as well as the product as a whole, through rigorous testing.

The standards you’re testing to will dictate the conditions. They could include extreme temperatures, humidity, vibrations, and more. You should test to see if the materials you’ve used hold up, but also to establish expectations for the consumer.

In highly accelerated life testing (HALT), you mimic the lifespan of the product to determine when it fails. In highly accelerated stress screening (HASS), you expose products to extreme conditions to identify any weak points. Together, they enable you to confirm the design and production of the product.

Special considerations, however, should be made for your batteries.


Lithium-Ion Battery Testing

The rechargeable battery has changed a number of industries, including making the boom in electronics possible. It’s also challenged companies to design safe products that hold up in harsh conditions (especially in the case of overheating).

With the potential dangers malfunctioning batteries pose, not to mention the recalls that may accompany failures, you can’t afford to neglect battery testing. In that sense, it’s, arguably, the most important aspect of your testing, and outsourcing it is a risk.

Luckily, modern fixtures (such as AES’s ATP series) have made battery testing efficient and easy while allowing you to meet required standards. With the right safety features in place, you can determine when the batteries fail and design measures to prevent them from doing so post-production. Phones that shut down when they’re left in the sun too long is one example. Laptop, tablets, and phones that charge to full capacity but not over even when they’re left plugged in is another.

If you’re confident in your battery that goes a long way in ensuring your electronics product will perform in a variety of environments.

That’s what testing comes down to overall. It proves your products are ready to go to market, but it also confirms your processes from research and design to production. You gain peace of mind and confidence in your products and can pass on both to your customers.

Associated Environmental Systems has designed, manufactured, and supported standard and custom test chambers to meet customers’ most demanding requirements for more than 60 years. Contact us for all your testing needs or view our inventory of test chambers here.