Rapid Prototyping & Performance

  • October 01, 2012
  • Feature
October 1, 2012
By Bill Lydon, Editor
National Instruments’ NIWeek 2012, held on August 6–9 at the Austin Convention Center, always features interesting applications of technology with many pushing envelopes of performance.   NIWeek brought together more than 3,500 engineers and scientists from a wide range of industries along with nearly 600 NI Alliance Partners.
The center of the National Instruments world is LabVIEW and the driving goal of the company was summed up by cofounder, president and CEO, Dr. James Truchard.  “We want to empower the Edison’s of the world to innovate and discover at a much faster pace,” said Truchard. “This is our vision. We want to be in front of the curve defining the next generation of instrumentation.”
Test Instrument Performance
The core of National Instruments remains innovation in test and measurement and with the introduction of the first software-designed instrument.  The NI PXIe-5644R RF vector signal transceiver (VST) combines a vector signal generator and vector signal analyzer with a user-programmable FPGA into a single PXI modular instrument,. This is a clever application of the National Instruments LabVIEW, FPGA, and signal conditioning technology to provide a compelling alternative to existing RF test equipment at a fraction of the cost. It combines four traditional RF instruments: RF analyzer, RF generator, digital I/O, and an FPGA, and integrates them in a single 3-slot PXI chassis, creating what NI claims is the first vector signal transceiver. This product enables engineers to configure and program this device to meet unique needs using NI LabVIEW. Doug Johnson, Director of Engineering at Qualcomm Atheros, who has been using the device before formal introduction commented, “The NI PXIe-5644R provides us freedom and flexibility in the way we develop our 802.11ac solutions for our customers, and has significantly improved our test throughput.”   More information on Vector signal transceiver.
Jeff K's Parallel Computing
Each year at NI Week Jeff Kodosky, cofounder National Instruments and NI Business and Technology Fellow, provides insights on technical topics. This year he discussed parallel computing. He notes that the advent of multiple core processors has added another dimension to Moore’s law in addition to raw computing power. “To use multiple cores effectively, software has to operate them in parallel,” said Kodosky. He noted that we have been designing and describing parallel processes for years including electrical diagrams, music scores, project management diagrams, and football plays.   Kodosky described how it is possible in LabVIEW today to program multiple core processors. He pointed out that in addition, the linkage with FPGA hardware provides the ability to have parallel logic in hardware.
Planet NI Program
The Planet NI is an outreach program in emerging countries that is committed to nurturing local innovation by making engineering tools more affordable and accessible to individuals and organizations who are working to improve their communities. Planet NI programs are active on 34 countries to help close the gap where engineers and students face barriers that hinder innovation.   Planet NI benefits start-ups and small and medium enterprises, in addition to collaborating with educational institutions, local governments, and NGOs to support technology-based entrepreneurship. A great example of results from the Planet NI Program is the solar powered water pumping and filtering system based on NI Compact RIO and LabVIEW developed at the Outreach Technology lab in Pakistan.  More information on Planet NI Program.
Japan Radiation - National Instruments Japan Recovery Grant Program
Dr. Minoru Tanagaki from Kyoto University talked about the earthquake of March 2011 and how they developed a monitoring system with the help provided by National Instruments Japan Recovery Grant Program. This enabled Kyoto University to rapidly develop a mobile radiation detection system and deploy it on 100 public transportation vehicles to monitor the area radiation. The Kyoto University RAdiation MApping (KURAMA) system uses an NI LabVIEW system design software and NI CompactRIO hardware. “KURAMA-II would probably have taken one to two months longer to develop if we had not used LabVIEW,” said Tanagaki. The system provides cross-sectional air dose rate measurements using data collected from vehicles roaming designated areas and providing a near real-time visualization of the measurements.
Industrial Automation
I had a conversation with National Instruments’ Todd Walter, Senior Group Manager Embedded Systems, about how they view industrial automation opportunities. Walter described the areas where NI focuses in industrial automation as applications that require high performance including high speed control loops, intensive algorithms, precise control loop measurement, and machine vision. He cited semiconductor polishing applications as an example. He noted they are more successful with machine builders with demanding applications.  Walter distinguished NI from typical industrial automation vendors by saying, “We want to provide the embedded controllers, software, and then provide a suite of protocols…” This allows machine builders to interface to a plant’s infrastructure to become part of the overall production system. National Instruments is supporting industrial networks to interface to the other systems including Modbus, DeviceNet, Profibus, PROFINET, EtherNet/IP, EtherCAT, IEC 61850, and IEC 60870.
National Instruments new stand-alone NI CompactDAQ system puts it in the league with industrial PACs (Programmable Automaton Controllers) with a built-in Intel Core i7 dual-core processor, 2 GB RAM and 32 GB nonvolatile storage and an 8-slot chassis for I/O modules. Priced from $6,499.   More information on NI CompactDAQ.
Thoughts & Observations
It is hard to find another platform with the computing power and rapid prototyping capabilities of LabVIEW coupled with National Instruments hardware. This does come at a price that is more than standard industrial controllers. For this reason, NI products are used in demanding industrial automation applications out of the reach of typical industrial controllers.
National Instruments’ sweet spot remains test and measurement and the new initiative of developing software-designed instrumentation is leveraging the company’s technical assets.
There are always a wide range of user applications shown at NIWeek. The versatility and rapid prototyping made possible by NI enables the empirical exploration of ideas fulfilling Dr. Truchard’s statement, “We want to empower the Edison’s of the world to innovate and discover at a much faster pace.”

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