Parasar Kodati, software product manager at Instron, talks to AZoM about the new TrendTracker and the importance of the right testing software for the job.
To start off, could you give a brief overview of the role of material testing software in today’s industrial and scientific markets?
Software really expands the scope of possibilities in a very big way for the material testing world. By utilizing software configurations a universal testing machine can be used for applications as diverse as composites used in aerospace industry to biological tissue.
Another huge benefit is that unlike an instrument with fixed buttons, a PC-based instrument can evolve over time. The user can derive the benefits of the latest software tools, better algorithms, and improved functionality with the same hardware they purchased five years ago.
How important is testing software when picking the right testing solution and how important is it in today’s market to have the right testing software for the job?
Software is a very important component of a testing solution for two main reasons. The first reason is because it is the primary user interface of the testing instrument. Usability of the software is increasingly becoming important as lab supervisors have a constant need to train new operators in the lab. There is also a need to change test methods and create new methods to suit changing application needs. Ease of use goes a long way in addressing these concerns.
The second reason is software, to a large extent, determines the scope of the testing possibilities. This is especially true for a universal testing machine where, as the name suggests, the application diversity is very large.
It would be interesting to know how new testing software gets started – what are the triggers for a new software project and how does it progress from there?
Instron’s software development process taps into the unique resource of passionate customer advocates in sales, field service, technical support, application experts, and industry marketing managers.
This interaction results in a continuous stream of new features and enhancements in every release. Every once in a while we realize that there is a fundamental unmet need that has to be addressed and that leads to the discussion of a new product offering. We validate this further by directly talking to our customers to understand the need more clearly.
Once this direct and indirect feedback is processed and we realize that a new product makes sense, we quickly start working on that project. A new software project is a huge undertaking where the benefits also need to be weighed against factors like impact on existing customers, support costs, compatibility with existing hardware, etc.
What are some of the trade-offs in material testing software design?
The biggest trade-off is flexibility vs usability. As I mentioned before, software for a universal testing machine should suit a variety of applications and lab workflows. This has driven the software of some vendors to the point of becoming a sophisticated programming tool with layers and layers of options.
On the upside it makes the software extremely configurable, but it comes at the price of poor usability for even simple tasks that the customer needs to do. This is where our engineering team is very particular about the usability impact with every feature addition. For example, in Bluehill® 3, we completely re-did the software engine adding a lot more power and flexibility while keeping the ease of use of Bluehill 2 intact. That’s a pretty remarkable achievement.
One of the toughest issues regarding testing software design must be balancing the complexity needed to cover diverse user needs with software usability – how is this issue overcome?
This is a challenging design problem. It is a good rule of thumb that 80% of the users interact with 20% of the software features. The design effort lies in carefully optimizing the experience for this 80% of the users. Instron also invests in conducting usability tests from time to time to uncover opportunities to further simplify things. For any new product that has a software interface we always have beta customers who validate the primary and secondary details that need to be exposed on the interface.
What is test data management and how can one think about it as part of the testing solution and not as an after-thought?
Data is obviously the most important asset of a lab. Increasingly, customers are asking for solutions where they can manage their data in a way that makes it more searchable and easily accessible to their internal customers. Without a proper evaluation of the need for offline data analysis and the required information flow to the appropriate audience we can end up in a situation where a lot more work needs to be done in adapting the customer’s IT infrastructure to the testing software.
Instron has recently introduced TrendTracker – could you please explain a little about this software package and how it works?
The main goals for us behind building TrendTracker are to simplify and accelerate the data analysis workflow of a testing lab. There are two components to the product. The first one is archiving test results coming from Bluehill 3 software in a powerful database. We chose Microsoft SQL Server for scalability and robustness. The database can be hosted on a customer’s own Microsoft SQL Server infrastructure or Instron distributed Express edition of SQL Server.
The second component is the new TrendTracker Viewer application which is a simple spread-sheet like interface that has been designed from the ground up to accelerate the search and analysis of data. The Viewer can be easily installed on the desktop or laptop of anyone in the company who needs access to the test data. You can save frequently used searches and share these with other users. You can also export results from these searches into other packages like Excel and Minitab for further analysis.
On popular demand we also built an automated tool to migrate existing Bluehill 2 and Bluehill 3 results from any number of sample files into the database.
What are the key industry sectors that will benefit from TrendTracker?
Anyone who needs to analyze data from more than one test file can benefit hugely from TrendTracker. Initially we thought only a segment like quality control needs this more, but we realized it is equally applicable for low-volume R&D labs where there is a need to analyze results to compare design candidates or experiment variations that have been tested over the duration of a project.
Instron has also recently released a latest version of their Bluehill® 3 Materials Testing Software – how is this an improvement on the previous versions?
3.31 was the last major release. We introduced features covering control and data acquisition like adaptive strain-rate control and simplified high-temperature testing workflows. We also added a new control chart to visualize variation within a batch of specimens and a number of composites test methods covering different ISO and ASTM standards.
I am also very excited to share with you that Instron has the very first tablet app to quickly view and compare different test methods on an iPad. Customers can view and compare all of their test methods created using Bluehill on a fluid touch interface. The app is available on the Apple App store; just search for Instron Bluehill.
About Parasar Kodati
Parasar Kodati is the software product manager at Instron.
His background includes robotics and simulation tools for engineering system design.
He holds a Masters Degree in mechanical engineering from University of Delaware.
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