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November 20, 2008

Nokia reliability – Extreme weather

SOUTHWOOD, England – The one thing most Nokia device’s share is that they could be on sale anywhere in the world. That means they need to be able to work as well in northern Finland, where temperatures go well below zero, as they do in the Equatorial depths of Africa, where sun-like roastings are a regular occurrence. Kevin Smith, reliability team leader, looks after the mechanical reliability labs in Nokia’s UK Southwood base and yesterday took us through the details of how they test for such environments.

Humidity is as big a problem for devices as the sun or the cold. Given that it’s usually accompanied by extreme temperatures, the machine designed to test it looks just like an oven (albeit an industrial style one!). Inside temperatures sit at a cosy 80 degrees centigrade whilst humidity is a sweat-inducing 95%. Kevin tells us devices will sit in here for up to three weeks. The N79s we saw were coming to the end of their stint, and showed all the signs of it, with keys starting to curl up like crisps. Testing the other extreme, cold, happens inside what looks like an industrial fridge. With temperatures hitting 40 below zero, the N79s we saw being tested were covered in frost. But still the key pressing machine kept on going, tapping away despite the excruciating cold.

The Gobi desert is a pretty inhospitable place, which makes bringing phones out there an unrealistic target. So Nokia brought it into its labs, in the form of a big machine with a powerful lamp inside. Even through the almost black window, you can see the outlines of the cases hanging inside, thanks to the super powerful sun-like lamp shining down on them. Sustained time in here show Kevin’s team how exteriors stand up to extreme exposure to sun. Fading, being the biggest challenge, right before melting.

Being in the UK, the lab needs to test British weather alongside more extreme global variants. British ingenuity, combined with some eccentricity found the answer to the problem. The team build a lot of their own testing jigs and the rain (more like drizzle) simulator is no different. At top top sits a tray kept full with a steady trickle of water. This trickles down through an array of needles, which feed the water onto the phone below. Excess water is caught in a former paint tray, and sent back up to the top tray via a common garden water pump. Both from the local DIY store. Genius. And it works.

The testing engineers are working to exacting standards. Not only do all devices have to adhere to international safety and technology standards, but they also have to come up to scratch on Nokia’s own benchmarks. The relentlessness with which Kevin and Robert and their team push products has to be seen to be believed.

These are just some of the tests we witnessed on our trip to the reliability lab, check back tomorrow for another installment. Meanwhile, let us know what you think below.