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NI: The future of test is virtual

Posted on: March 4, 2009

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Increasing demand for intelligent products coupled with the shift toward “software-based hardware designs” create the perfect mix of opportunity and challenge for today’s test engineers. Expertise alone is not enough in an industry where innovation is key—engineers must have access to the right kind of instruments and tools.

For National Instruments (NI), virtual instrumentation and graphical system design are the answer as these two “empower local talent and allow engineers to add their domain expertise to the economy and their organization,” said Chandran Nair, managing director, NI Southeast Asia. He explains that the two are key tools for an engineer, programmer or non-programmer, to write applications faster and more effectively.

Seeing the evolution of automated instrumentation and PC-based measurement the industry, NI did for engineers “what the spreadsheet did for the financial analysts,” remarked Nair. To provide engineers with tools that have an easy-to-use graphical programming environment, the company abstracted away the complexity of computer science, dropping the code from the equation. This allowed scientists and engineers to perform their domain expertise and do what they do best, wringing out the long time spent for writing and verifying codes. And such is very crucial for this industry, as time is not on its side.

“This concept of virtual instrumentation is the marriage between software and hardware [platforms] so that the user can define the solutions,” described Nair. The “very close integration of hardware and software” revolutionized how engineers use these systems. Virtual instrumentation tools are software-defined, allowing the engineer to extend tool usage in contrast with traditional, vendor-defined solutions.

“Software is the key driver, which allows a box to test multiple protocols for an equipment,” explained Nair. “In the traditional way of the box, the vendor defines the system and every time a new protocol or new standard comes up, engineers are forced to buy a new box. But if you take a step back and think about it, the hardware capability is already there. It is the software that decides the protocol, whether it is DVD, DVB-H or GSM. So why pay for a new box when the capability is already there?”

Defining the future
However, certain challenges confront the test and measurement industry, one of which is convergence. “There is so much convergence in technology today that there are several challenges faced by the engineer or scientist who designs these products,” noted Nair.

He cited the mobile phone as an example. The traditional form of the phone was gone. A phone now comes with a camera, and a high-resolution display, and supports messaging, email and voice call. “A phone is no more a phone of the past. And this is the same thing with almost every consumer product that we have,” according to Nair.

Large machine is another example. A vision machine for instance, must integrate different tools such as FPGAs, HW/SW for HMI, and HW/SW for motion/vision. And the engineer must put all these functionalities together.

NI managing director Chandran Nair explains to delegates how RF testing for different standards is done using NI’s one box solution.

According to Nair, test and measurement vendors have to deal with two extreme situations in terms of product life cycle. Consumer electronics have very short life cycles, hence pressuring teams to design and bring products to market faster. At the other end of the spectrum, the heavy machine tools have very long life cycle, ranging from 10-15 years, even 20 years. Complicating things further, the tools used in this segment vary. “In the short timeframe, companies require very productive tools that can give them advantage by bringing products to the market faster. On the other end, the tools must last for an average of 15 years, such that if something goes wrong they can still find ways to make their equipment work,” explained Nair.

To address this, NI made sure their products have “long-term continuity.” “All our hardware always have what we call form, function, fit that even if aspects change, the functionality and the form can be preserved and the tool can be used for their applications,” said Nair.

“The best tool for a particular function loses momentum when it cannot integrate with other tools in the process. Because of this complexity, the engineers and scientists are now in need of more than just the best point solutions for the myriad tasks they must complete, but instead need a development platform that can provide a consistent foundation for compatibility and productivity.”

Graphical design
There is also the “big wall” that exists between the design engineer and the manufacturing engineer. “After something is designed, it is thrown over that wall and the manufacturing engineer has to build and test and so on. But that brings waste of time waste of resources,” said Nair.

NI applications engineer Ong Chee Kiong demos to a delegate the use of PXI-based module for RF test.

Addressing this issue requires a common platform that can be used across the enterprise. Enters the concept of graphical system design. “Graphical system design means a common framework that can be used all the way from the design phase, through the prototyping and into the deployment phase… There are so many tools used by engineers that an organization loses a lot of productivity and a lot of money if there is no common framework,” noted Nair.

Using graphical system design, an engineer can identify system models from real-world stimulus and provides a diagram that explains the state of the system, a conceptual map to do very advanced algorithm without the need to write those algorithms in textual maps. Nair shared that this capability is available in the LabVIEW 8.20 product that was launched this year. Applications of graphical system design include such devices as printer, RF and wireless communications devices and buses.

Nair revealed that children are the largest users of graphical system design tools. NI tools have been used in Lego Corp.’s Lego Mindstorm products, which includes processors and sensors integrated in the brick. According to Nair, the product provides a simple graphical system design implementation: children imagine the design for the bricks (design), implement it in the design (prototype) and show the formed design to parents (deployment). This allows the children to think graphically and program quickly, securing also the next line of engineers for the industry.

All these concepts were presented during the NIDays 2007 in Manila, Philippines. The Feb. 13 event was the second leg of the Southeast Asia road show. About 20 partner-companies of NI participated in the exhibition. One of the highlights of the event was the hands-on training session on the use of NI LabVIEW modules.

Regular NIDays participant Joselito Morallo, president of Philippine-based Manufacturing Genext Technology Solutions Inc. reflects on the conference, “The event updated me on the latest technologies and the trends presented are important to us [engineers]. The hands-on session also provides additional information on how to use the products, such as LabVIEW, more effectively. NI also keeps a good partnership with their customers so we keep coming back.”

Angeles University faculty members Paul Valencia and Mario Luna concurred. They said the event showed them how to use new technologies and techniques for conducting their laboratory experiments as well as on how to leverage the use of software based devices for their lab designs.

– Anna Valmero
Electronic Engineering Times-Asia

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