SANTA ROSA -- When thinking about innovation, the product itself comes to mind. At Agilent Technologies, the manufacturing process has been automated using advanced robotic techniques to increase test equipment utilization and reduce idle time.

For complex radio-frequency (RF) and microwave instruments, each product Agilent (agilent.com) builds at its Santa Rosa facility at 1400 Fountaingrove Pkwy. gets 20--30 hours of calibration and tests before it is shipped to a customer.

"In the 1990s and before, each instrument Agilent designed had its own custom rack of test equipment for that model," said Doug Knight, test process convergence manager. "These large dedicated racks resulted in poor equipment utilization since expensive instruments (such as signal generators, spectrum analyzers or power meters) would sit idle while others were used for several hours."

[caption id="attachment_95438" align="alignright" width="288"] Doug Knight, Test Process Convergence Manager at Agilent Technologies, stands in front of the automated robotic testing matrix for new products, a major manufacturing innovation that maximizes the utilization of test equipment.[/caption]

To resolve this issue, company engineers broke up these huge, dedicated test systems into six smaller stations, each with a specific purpose, as a subset of the total test required. To be completely tested, a product would need to visit all six stations. While this innovation increased simultaneous test system usage, it was only the beginning of the maximization process.

Agilent engineers then designed a robotic automation system for moving products between stations under computer control. They named the system "Yellowstone," and the software that drives the robotic hardware and keeps track of the test status of each product they called "Presidio."

The Yellowstone system included duplicate copies of each station type, and the six types have become the standards for research-and-development engineers to design new products.

Instead of designing the manufacturing process for the product, multiple product generations have now been designed for the manufacturing process.

"This has given us a stable, efficient manufacturing process and has driven consistency in our product designs," Mr. Knight said.

The heart of the Yellowstone system is a vehicle that moves along the length of the structure on rails. Products being tested are on trays with their own wheels. Trays are picked up by the vehicle and delivered to the test stations on either side of the system structure.

Most electrical connections are made with blind-mate connectors that engage when each tray slides into position. A single precise connection is made to the front panel of each product (up to 50 gigahertz) through an overhead robot at each station.

This is not the end of the story. The team that created Yellowstone went on to design automatic temperature control units to integrate into the system.

These units -- called "IcePick" -- can heat or cool products under test to any temperature zero--55 degrees Celsius (32--99 degrees Fahrenheit), with accuracy of a few 10ths of a degree.

With IcePick, engineers can get performance data on prototype products over a wide range of operating temperatures 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

This enables Agilent R&D teams to analyze new designs and set specifications quickly, leading to earlier product releases than would otherwise have been possible.

[caption id="attachment_95439" align="alignleft" width="360"] Agilent engineers involved in the Yellowstone automated manufacturing test system today include (left to right) Sean Cortright, Tom Berto, Mark Vandewalle, Calvin Krug, Dave Henderson and Ryan Kelley.[/caption]

The robotic automation is a visible part of Agilent's manufacturing convergence effort, but there are many other aspects, according to Mr. Knight. The latest work is focused on using common test software platforms in company factories and service centers around the world.

"We continue to strive for greater R&D, product testing, and manufacturing efficiencies as we seek to take the next step and converge different, multiple test software environments into a single software platform," Mr. Knight said. "This is both a technical and a leadership challenge, but the rewards, in terms of manufacturing consistency and efficiency, will build on the innovative technology foundation of the Yellowstone automated test system and greatly benefit the company when this software project is completed."

The company's manufacturing strategies are influencing how it designs new products. New Agilent instruments drop into stable, existing manufacturing lines called process centers.

Quality is another benefit derived from having standardized manufacturing processes.

"Today, Agilent instruments have the highest reliability we have ever delivered as a company," he said.

The company's Santa Rosa site, with 1,200 employees, is home to vertically integrated manufacturing.

Pat Harper, technology order fulfillment general manager, likes to call it "dirt-to-dollars" manufacturing. The company produces gallium-arsenide integrated circuits, microelectronic components, precision mechanical parts and complete high-frequency instruments.

"It's an exciting place to work," Mr. Knight said. "We're always looking for talented engineers and computer scientists who might want to join us. You can never run out of things to learn here. We have many employees who came to Hewlett-Packard or Agilent as new college graduates and never left -- I'm one of those."

Agilent's Santa Rosa-based Electronic Measurement Group is set to be spun off as publicly owned Keysight Technologies this fall.