Carving 'Challenging' Niche out of Automation market

  • September 30, 2011
  • Feature
October 2011
By Bill Lydon, Editor
At the recent NIWeek 2011 (Worldwide Graphical System Design Conference), I had the opportunity to discuss National Instruments’ (NI) role in industrial controls and automation with Christian Fritz, Senior Product Manager for Advanced Machine Control and Robotics. He explained that his is a new position in the industrial group focused on helping machine builders successfully apply NI products.   Fritz noted that NI’s typical applications in automation have very high speeds, high precision, and special functions. Fritz said, “For those types of applications we are not competing against PLCs - PLCs just cannot do the job.”
Question: What are the factors that define where NI products are used rather than PLCs?
Fritz: Wherever the application is challenging including computational performance and speed.
Question: Does NI view industrial automation as a long term growth opportunity to become greater than 20% of National Instruments revenue or simply another niche, less than 15% of business, to deliver technology tools?
Fritz: National Instruments provides products and platforms that enable engineers and scientists to design any system that needs measurement and control, using the graphical system design approach. In this effort, we design products that can be applied across many different industries and application areas. In fact, no particular industry accounts for more than 15% of NI revenue.
Industrial automation is of course an important element of the NI business and we have a lot of customers who are using our industrial grade embedded platforms to implement advanced control and monitoring applications; ranging from automated pipeline welding machines to building control and monitoring systems for turbines.
National Instruments will continue to invest in products and platforms that can be applied in industrial automation applications. The core strength of the NI graphical system design platform is the combination of productive software and high-performance hardware. In the industrial area these tools are especially beneficial for developing high-performance machines and devices that require advanced sensor feedback, are characterized through challenging control tasks or have quick time to market requirements. Because those kind of advanced applications often require integration into an automation process, National Instruments products can also accomplish lower-speed process automation tasks.
Question: Does NI have a role in the Smart Grid and if so what?
Fritz: Like the PC and smart phone, most disruptive ideas combine existing elements in a way that provide a dramatically better solution. The same phenomenon is true for the smart grid. Embedded reconfigurable instrumentation and control systems powered by NI LabVIEW software are merging with cloud-based networking, analytics and other cutting-edge information technologies. The proliferation of smart networked embedded systems, widely distributed throughout the grid, will revolutionize the way electricity is produced, consumed and distributed.
Many of the industry leaders in smart grid technology around the world are using NI technology for designing, prototyping and deploying the embedded systems needed to transform today’s energy networks into smart grids. The Energy Summit at NIWeek 2011 brought in some of those experts to discuss challenges and solutions around smart grid technology.   
Question: With the addition of more motion products last year, what are leading applications and growth aspirations for NI in mechatronics?
Fritz: Mechatronics-oriented design tools improve machine development by simulating the interaction between mechanical and electrical subsystems throughout the design process. Motion Control, drives and motors are key components in mechatronics systems and adding them to our portfolio increased the value of the National Instruments platform for the design of mechatronics systems.
While the mechatronics approach is beneficial for all kinds of industries and applications we of course see the widest adoption in application areas that are generally open for innovation and new technologies like the medical industry, robotics or advanced machine builders. These are a couple of case studies of customers using our motion control products, following a mechatronics design approach:
Question: What technologies do you think will have the greatest impact on automation and controls in the next five years?
Software abstraction – Graphical system design is a great example how software abstraction increases the productivity of engineers and scientist from different industries and application areas.
Embedded processing – The ever increasing processing performance and the lower footprint of processors enables companies like National Instruments to bring technologies like multi-core processors into the industrial space and create off-the-shelf embedded systems that engineers and scientist can adopt for the most demanding applications.
Reconfigurable hardware – With shorter design cycles and increased pressure to innovate, reconfigurable hardware like field programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) provides the industry with a solution to create custom functionality with hardware performance without the investment and effort of designing an ASIC or custom board. Embedded in off-the-shelf systems and programmable with high-level design tools like NI LabVIEW software, these technologies are accessible for engineers and scientists with little embedded expertise.
The combination of a real-time processor, programmable logic and modular I/O within one system – National Instruments refers to this technology as RIO technology but we see a wide adoption for this concept in the industry.
Proliferation of Sensors - High-performance measurements are the key to solving sophisticated control problems and realizing robust systems. New technologies and the wide use of sensors in commercial products like smart phones or the Wii gaming console (and many others) have been increasing the availability of sensors and reduced the cost. This trend will continue and so we will see a proliferation of sensors in industrial applications.
Networking, synchronization and security – The increasing number of embedded and control systems used to solve today’s applications also increases the need for networking, synchronization and security technologies. And while there are a lot of different standards available today, the integration is where we expect a lot of innovation over the next couple of years.
Video: FPGA Basics
Question: What do you think future control system will look like in the next five years?
Fritz: As mentioned in the previous question, National Instruments sees a big trend towards systems that combine a real-time processor, programmable logic (FPGA) and modular I/O in one system. Available as modular off-the-shelf systems that come either in a packaged or board-only form factor, these systems allow customers to quickly design, prototype and deploy systems that need measurement and control.
An integral part of the NI graphical system design platform, NI RIO technology combines NI LabVIEW software with commercial off-the-shelf hardware to simplify development and shorten time-to-market when designing advanced control and monitoring systems. NI RIO hardware, which includes NI CompactRIO, NI Single-Board RIO, R Series boards, and PXI-based NI FlexRIO, feature an architecture with powerful floating-point processors, reconfigurable field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) and modular I/O. All NI RIO hardware components are programmed with LabVIEW to give engineers the ability to rapidly create custom timing, signal processing, and control for I/O without requiring expertise in low-level hardware description languages or board-level design.
Question: How do you see cloud computing impacting automation and controls?
Fritz: Cloud computing is not a specific type of processor but a collection of computing resources accessible via the Internet. The power of cloud computing is that it frees users from having to purchase, maintain, and upgrade their own computing resources. Instead they can rent just the processing time and storage space necessary for their applications. Cloud computing use has grown rapidly, with HP predicting that 76 percent of businesses will pursue some form of it within the next two years. However, while it does provide access to some of the most powerful computers in the world, cloud computing has the drawback of very high latency. Data must be transferred over the Internet, making it difficult to use in automation systems that require deterministic processing capabilities. But cloud computing is still well-suited for offline analysis, data storage or during the development process to share data, source code or increase the speed of the compilation when you are deploying your application to your prototyping or deployment hardware.
Question: Will the general move to IPv6 based Ethernet have an impact on your products? (Internet Protocol Security (IPsec) is mandatory in IPv6. China has already made this a standard and the US government is standardizing starting in 2012.)
Fritz: As with many other communication protocols and technologies before, National Instruments is watching the developments and trends for IPv6 closely and we are in the process of laying the groundwork to get a more native support across our software and hardware platforms.
Question: What major issues do you suggest automation users (industrial & process) think about in their planning?
Fritz: With the increasing pressure to innovate and the requirement to constantly increase throughput, energy efficiency and uptime, the automation industry needs to come up with a strategy that allows them to innovate and improve and at the same time preserves their investment. The key standardizing on software design tools that scale and allow them to deploy their applications to hardware platforms that use latest technology.  The National Instruments approach to graphical system design allows customers to take advantage of latest technologies like multicore processors or FPGAs embedded in industrial grade hardware platforms that scale from small and cost effective single board systems, to off-the-shelf PC technology, and all the way to high-performance rugged industrial embedded systems like the new NI Multicore CompactRIO controller - all of which are programmable with the same software tools.
Question: What are your greatest challenges in future planning?
Fritz: National Instruments is constantly looking for new technologies we can leverage and incorporate into our platforms. For our success, it is critical to correctly prioritize all the projects and feature ideas we have. The customer and the applications customers are using our products for are key drivers for those decisions.
Question: Should plant automation and control people be managed by the IT department? Why or why not?
Fritz: I don’t think it makes sense to come up with a recommendation that holds good for every company and I don’t think it is really a question of who manages whom. In the end what really matters is that the automation industry needs to build up more IT expertise. For industrial communication, it is not only about determinism and throughput anymore. Lately, Stuxnet taught us that it is also about network security - a topic that IT experts have focused on for many years. By leveraging IT experts as consultants when designing automation networks, we can to ensure reliable network communications.
Question: How can LabVIEW be best used to create embedded analytics including model based and adaptive control? Has it be made easier?
Fritz: Engineers and scientists can accelerate the development of embedded monitoring and control systems by adapting the graphical system design approach. LabVIEW provides an extensive library of ready to use functions for math, signal processing, control, and simulation and abstracts the system complexity. At the same time, it offers a seamless integration with I/O and streamlines the process of deploying algorithms to modular real-time hardware. This is a key advantage of the National Instruments graphical systems design platform because ultimately scientist and engineers need to design systems that work in the real world and interact with plants, systems and devices through I/O signals.
Streamlining this design process is National Instruments premier goal and at NIWeek this year we released many products and introduced new features which address this effort, including:  
  • Productivity improvement features of LabVIEW
  • Support for all new hardware such as Multicore CompactRIO and new Single-Board RIO devices to ensure engineers can have complete code reuse
  • Simplified Xilinx Coregen IP Access
  •  Support for structures in MathScript RT
  • CompactRIO C Series MDK 2.0 and Design Partners for the RIO Mezzanine Card
Question: How is NI addressing cyber security issues?
Fritz: Recognizing that our tools are getting adopted in more and more applications where reliability and safety are major concerns, security is a major topic within our R&D group.
Question: A barrier to the application of FPGA based products is cost. Is there any reason to believe there will be a dramatic lowering of cost for these applications?
Fritz: The feedback National Instruments has been receiving over the last couple of years is along the same lines. While the NI CompactRIO platform which features FPGAs is great for control and monitoring applications that require high performance, it has been challenging for customer to adopt this platform for applications with lower footprint and lower cost requirements. At the same time we have received feedback from customers who require even higher processing power. At NIWeek 2011, we released a series of smaller and lower cost Single-Board RIO devices featuring the same architecture which basically cuts the size and the cost in half compared to previous products. In addition, National Instruments launched the first multicore CompactRIO featuring a 1.33GHz Intel Dual Core i7 processor which expands the family of RIO products on the high-performance end of the spectrum.
At the same time there are new technologies available from leading companies like Xilinx and Intel which might allow National Instruments in the future to further drive down the footprint of our systems while also providing higher-performance systems for the automation industry.
Thoughts & Observations
National Instruments has some powerful technology all centered around graphical programming using the company’s LabVIEW software. NI products are great for designing, prototyping and deploying embedded systems quickly.  At NIWeek there were many demanding applications demonstrated that were made possible using the high performance capabilities delivered by NI products.
Creating industrial control and automation applications is easy and intuitive using LabVIEW.  The drawback is that NI hardware and software has a high price tag compared to typical industrial control and automation products. National Instruments products are like driving a fine sports car - they are responsive and high performance, but expensive.
NI is supporting industrial communications with the most recent being EtherCAT.
In demanding industrial automation and control applications, NI products make sense for industrial automation and control.
I have been intrigued by NI FPGA based products since they were introduced, but they have been pricey. The newest FPGA controller offering is approximately $500 list price.
National Instruments is not a mainstream industrial control and automation product supplier. However, NI products are being applied in very high performance niche applications.
In our discussion, Fritz noted that there are many older custom control systems that are efficiently replaced using National Instruments products.

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