Off the scale

It’s fair to say that 3C Test’s headquarters at Silverstone Park are vast. On two counts.

The sheer scale of the chambers inside – used to product-test new electrical components in every walk of life – is mind blowing. Indeed the 12,000sq ft premises are the biggest of any company on the estate.

Similarly the size of the figures in gigahertz the company fires at components to make sure they won’t fail when introduced to the marketplace.

All this born out of a company set up initially some 25 years ago in an office at home by James and Wendy Colebrooke. It’s a story endemic of the entrepreneurial spirit that runs through Silverstone Park’s cluster of companies.

The interior of the building is enormously complex,” explains James. “When we moved to Silverstone in 2005 the building took about 18 months to construct and it then took another year to put all the equipment in – the equipment is hugely specialised and made specifically for the job in hand.

“On site we have four anechoic (absorbs radio waves) chambers which have absorber lining the walls. In effect they are steel boxes to block out all radio waves both inside and outside. There is no external interference.

“Two are for automotive and military components. Another is specifically for commercial products and then we have our largest chamber – our 10 metre site – which we designed ourselves and which took six months to put in at a cost of about half a million pounds. It can take anything up to huge great things the size of a double decker bus and even today we are still enhancing it.”

It is believed that every European automotive manufacturer (bizarrely with the exception of Lancia) has had components – from tiny electrical clusters through to the whole car – tested at 3C Test. James also points out: “We are one of only two companies in the UK who can do accreditation for the Taiwanese car industry so we can test cars made in the UK for the Taiwan market.

“We are very unique, very much on our own and very good at what we do. We have a superb set of engineers who really know what they are doing. All are very skilled, very specialised and very conscientious.”

While the majority of the 3C Test’s work is for the automotive industry the company also regularly carries out testing of household name components used in marine, IT, telecommunications, rail and space. Thousands of domestic products used in everyday life are also put through their paces.

James continues: “We provide a service to any electrical manufacturer – it doesn’t matter who they are – to make sure their individual products conform with European regulations for CE marking and original equipment manufacturing (OEM) requirements.

“Specifically we do electro-magnetic compatibility which is to make sure that a product will work in an electrical environment; in other words it won’t be interfered with by radio waves and radio waves won’t interfere with it. We also test to make sure products will survive transients and electrostatic discharge on their power supply.

“It’s all of those industries mentioned previously, even agricultural earth moving equipment and some really massive switch gear components for industrial plants. Basically anything that has got electricity running through it.”

Testing is a relatively simple affair, at least when James explains it. “Basically we fire radio waves at products and go to extremes to ensure they are capable of standing up to the whole spectrum of what is out there in the ether at the moment. This means injecting and measuring noise from 20 Hertz right up to 26 GHz so as to simulate radio waves for anything in the whole spectrum that is out there in the ether at the moment.

“Take a car for example: in essence it’s a steel box so what you’ll find is that when they drive past radio transmitters then radio waves can begin wandering around the car even if only for a brief second or so. This can be up to or even exceed 200 volts per metre and if they happen to coincide on one of the boxes or on your wiring loom then suddenly the unit can become very upset.

“Or it could be when you turn on the lights or the fan and you’ll get a big transient on the electrical system. We’ll test for that as well.

“Sometimes at home when you switch a light on and hear a little click through the radio, we can simulate this to ensure things do not fall over as a result of the transient. We can do similar things such as simulating a remote lightning strike or an electric-static discharge event to ensure the consumer of a product doesn’t suffer from unreliability due to these phenomena.

“It’s all sorts. Often it’s very difficult to simulate every eventuality so we’ll take it to a worst case scenario for the manufacturers.”