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November 21, 2008

Nokia reliability labs – repetition

SOUTHWOOD, England – Depending on the type of use, some devices can have their keys pressed over one million times during their lifetime. Which is why the team in the Nokia Reliability Labs have machines that can relentlessly tap out 1 million dabs on a keypad. Tucked away in the back of the labs is a little room, no bigger than the average kitchen where the tut tut tut of pneumatic-powered metal fingers jab away at keypads, d-pads and on and off switches.

This is where repetition is tested to the limit, and Kevin Smith and the team can find out if keys will still be working long after the device is taken out of the box. Devices under scrutiny are taken out of the test and physically checked every day, to ensure they’re still working. Any that aren’t are analysed and their status recorded. A single failure doesn’t mean the alarm bells start ringing, Kevin and his team use statistical analysis to work out whether failures are catastrophic, and therefor require more attention, or simply once-offs – the context of the failure is key to understanding it.

It isn’t just keypads which get the repeat treatment either. We saw camera shutters being opened and closed, power keys being hammered and even a pre-production d-pad, without either the d or the pad, being tested.

Sometimes components will be tested alone to ensure they’re usable, or simply to make the testing process more efficient, so design and testing can happen in tandem. Sliding mechanisms have proved the most difficult over time, particularly when the device is getting slimmer, and so tolerances are getting tighter.

The repetition test lab is filled with pneumatic components and contains enough kit to make the most obsessive mechano-head jealous. Gigs can be built and adjusted easily according to the size and type of product being tested and usually sit five or more up so multiple tests can be done at the same time. Mind you, I wouldn’t fancy spending too much time in there – the room is noisy and the constant chorus of tut tut tut enough to drive you insane. Thankfully the team in the lab seem used to it now.

So there you have it. I can’t remember the last time a key on one of my (Nokia) phones stopped working. Can you?

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