Time for Innovation declared at NIWeek 2010

Time for Innovation declared at NIWeek 2010

 
By Bill Lydon - Editor
 
National Instruments Annual Conference - Austin, TX August 3-5, 2010
 
NI Week 2010 again proved to be a stimulating place for innovators to gather, learn, and share ideas.  A record-breaking audience of nearly 3,000 attendees traveled to Austin, TX from all over the world.   As usual, the conference illustrated a wide range of applications and thought-provoking demonstrations. Demonstrations of solutions developed with LabVIEW included a car for the blind, robots, medical equipment, and coordinated motion control.
 
In addition to over 250 technical sessions and hands-on workshops, the exhibit hall featured demonstrations of National Instruments products in action.
 
Can’t Miss Target Shooting
The show floor featured a shooting game where the target moves to meet the bullet.
 
Where else can you see 250,000 volt arcs?
Four foot Telsa coils playing music made an impressive demonstration. 
 
Dr. James Truchard, Cofounder and CEO of National Instruments, kicked off NI Week 2010 by stating, “In this conference we are going to focus on time, time for innovation, time in our products to integrate and build these very powerful systems.”  He went on to talk about innovation by saying, “Thomas Edison is our role model for innovation, certainly one of the most innovative and inventive persons that has ever lived, so he is an inspiration for us.” He described Edison’s belief that he could do, “…a minor innovation every ten days and a big thing every six months or so.” Truchard referred to article about Edison in the July 5, 2010 issue of Time magazine by saying, “When I read that article I was really drawn to the connection between what you’re doing with our products and what Edison did.” “I am sure we have a minor invention every day somewhere around the globe that you’re doing with our products and a big thing every month or so.”   Truchard noted that National Instruments has created an ecosystem for innovation built on the company’s platforms.
 
Dr. Truchard displayed an image of Edison’s notebook from 1888 titled, Things doing and to be done, to illustrate his inventive mind.    Dr. Truchard then showed a similar notebook page he wrote titled, “LabView, Things doing and to be done” to illustrate innovative activity in the NI community.
 

         
He noted that, “Moore’s law is the wind behind our backs,” which allows the delivery of higher powered platforms. Processor and FPGA performance has dramatically increased while cost has decreased.   National Instruments has maintained software compatibility while taking advantage of higher performance technology.  Dr. Truchard emphasized that LabVIEW’s graphic programming allows domain experts to create applications without programming. The company is also working closely with partners to allow LabVIEW to create applications that will run in custom ASICs and FPGAs.
 
Dr. Truchard stated that National Instruments has created the platforms to design and implement solutions, allowing a substantially more efficient design process than the traditional path. “We are doing for test and measurement what the spreadsheet did for financial analysis…now we set a new goal to do for embedded what the PC did for the desktop,” said Truchard. Dr. Truchard further discussed this in a session for media and analysts stating, “A small team can do some pretty amazing things using the right tools.” “One of the things that has helped us is having a platform that gets reuse, if reuse is low then an idea can’t propagate and this is why the PC was so successful…before the PC there were all kinds of processing architectures and things that were incompatible, this didn’t get the level of reuse up, reuse creates the critical mass to create an ecosystem that brings ideas from all over and gets a much faster pace of innovation.” The wide range of applications shown at the conference illustrates his point including medical, robotic, machine control, RF testing, and others.
 
Pondering Time
Jeff Kodosky, Cofounder and Business and Technology Fellow (aka the father of LabVIEW), presented his thoughts about the challenges of real-time programming. Kodosky said, “The problem with embedded design is you can’t think of the software by itself, you’ve got to think of it in terms of what hardware is interacting with, what time is necessary by the physical apparatus it is connected to and all of this information is outside of a traditional programming language.”
 
“We have innovative research going on using an approach which is different from others in our focus on distributed real-time systems and the tight integration of hardware configuration along with timing. Stay tuned for further developments.”
 
Kodosky noted, “We have the ability with LabVIEW to step up to the next level of system design language in which it is possible to not only depict the computational elements but we can display the timing relationships, and display the configuration we are operating on.” “That is the next big thing we are working on and call it our system diagram…it’s going to be a big project that takes a lot of years to bring to fruition. We think that is the next level of abstraction that will greatly improve the productivity of system designers.” 
 
I spent some time discussing this with Jeff Kodosky and he clearly is deep into this topic.  For example, he described how new multiprocessor designs and system caches are creating environments that by their design are non-deterministic. The company is committed to develop a better way for real-time programming. 
 
Business Perspectives
National Instruments has to be admired as an innovative technology driven company with sound business direction.
 
 Alex Davern, CFO and Senior Vice President, really brought this into focus at the media and analysts session. He started by citing a Wharton study that “Wall street is the wet blanket on innovation.” Davern elaborated that innovation comes from “stable environments, tools, time, vision, commitment, and a fairly comfortable environment where failure is not a disaster - where you encourage people to experiment and try and failure is somewhat celebrated because as long as you learn from it, move on to the next level.” 
 
Davern said, “A lot of dysfunction is encouraged by Wall Street.” He gave an example describing how three years ago investment bankers were pushing the company to do “financial engineering” by telling them they had too much cash, claiming they were running the company way too conservatively. The financial firms advised them to get rid of cash, take on dept, and buy back stock. Davern noted if the company had done these things they would have been in big trouble in the downturn. Fortunately, the NI management team has the vision and conviction to control their own destiny. He summed it up by saying, “My single biggest problem with Wall Street is timeline, if we could get Wall Street to look at a time line that made sense for innovation we (industry in general) would get a lot more innovation.”
 
Dr. Michio Kaku (www.mkaku.org) was the closing keynote speaker for NI Week 2010. He is a theoretical physicist, best-selling author, and advocate of science. He’s the co-founder of string field theory (a branch of string theory), and continues Einstein’s search to unite the four fundamental forces of nature into one unified theory. He has appeared on television (Discovery, BBC, ABC, Science Channel, and CNN to name a few), written for popular science publications like Discover, Wired, and New Scientist, been featured in documentaries like Me & Isaac Newton, and hosted many of his own including BBC’s recent series on Time. He explained how with Moore's Law doubling computer power every 18 months, innovation is happening faster than ever. In addition to detailing numerous emerging technologies that will drive the future, he discussed how NI is helping advance those technologies. With examples such as NI involvement in the CERN Large Hadron Collider and ITER fusion projects, he declared that, “NI has set the gold standard for data processing.”
 
LabVIEW Idea Exchange - www.ni.com/ideas
Last year National Instruments introduced LabView Idea Exchange as way for user to provide ideas and feedback. Over the year, there were 1,263 ideas submitted, 5,068 comments, 25,699 votes and 14 new ideas were implemented in LabVIEW 2010.
 
Interesting Products
 
LabVIEW 2010
LabVIEW 2010 executes code an average of 20 percent faster and includes a comprehensive marketplace for evaluating and purchasing add-on toolkits for easily integrating custom functionality into the platform. For field-programmable gate array (FPGA) users, LabVIEW 2010 delivers a new IP Integration Node that makes it possible to integrate any third-party FPGA IP into LabVIEW applications and is compatible with the Xilinx CORE Generator.
 
High-Performance Servo Drives and Motors
The new AKD Servo Drives and AKM Servo Motors simplify setup and configuration for deploying custom motion applications, and include support for EtherCAT technology with NI CompactRIO, PXI real-time controllers and NI industrial controllers. Additionally, National Instruments is releasing the NI LabVIEW 2010 NI SoftMotion Module that provides support for NI EtherCAT drives for simplified motion application development.
 
Ethernet-based CompactDAQ
Ethernet-based NI CompactDAQ modular data acquisition system combines the ease of use and low cost of a data logger with the performance and flexibility of modular instrumentation. The new NI cDAQ-9188 chassis is designed to hold eight I/O modules for measuring up to 256 channels of electrical, physical, mechanical or acoustic signals in a small (25 by 9 by 9 cm), rugged form factor. With more than 50 different I/O modules to choose from, engineers and scientists can build remote or distributed, high-speed measurement systems using standard Gigabit Ethernet infrastructure. In addition, NI CompactDAQ simplifies initial setup with zero configuration networking technology and a built-in, Web-based configuration and monitoring utility.
 
X Series Multifunction DAQ for USB
The X Series multifunction data acquisition (DAQ) devices for USB devices integrate high-performance analog measurement and control channels, digital I/O and counter/timers onto a single plug-and-play device, which engineers and scientists can use for a wide variety of portable test, measurement and data-logging applications. USB X Series DAQ devices include up to 32 analog inputs, four analog outputs, 48 digital I/O lines and four counters. The eight new devices range from 500 kS/s multiplexed AI to 2 MS/s/channel simultaneous sampling AI.
 
NI LabVIEW Robotics Starter Kit
The Robotic Starter Kit is a hands-on platform for teaching, research, and prototyping for $1,990 U.S. The kit includes a fully assembled mobile robot base starter kit, ultrasonic sensor, encoders, motors, battery, and charger. The controller in the kit is a single-board RIO. A 180-day evaluation of LabVIEW Robotics, LabVIEW Real-Time, and LabVIEW FPGA module software is included. The robot executes an obstacle avoidance program right out of the box.  
 
Thoughts and Observation
National Instruments continues to push in a number of directions but the common drive is the application of technology.
 
Mechatronics is clearly a growing area for the company with robotic applications being the most demanding. Mechatronics is broader scope than test and measurement and requires more engineering disciplines to be orchestrated to create solutions as opposed to keeping engineering compartmentalized into separate disciplines.
 
NI can now deliver integrated motion solutions with their motion controllers, new drives and EtherCAT. This capability coupled with easy-to-use, graphically programmed software will be interesting to watch. I had a long discussion with an integrator that builds systems with coordinated motion control linked with vision systems who only uses NI hardware and LabVIEW rather than PLCs. He explained that the time to develop is significantly lower using the NI products.
 
National Instrument is an example of a company that is driven by innovation and inquisitive minds. Because of NI management’s ability to balance business and innovation with a long term view, they were able to create (and maintain) an environment for success.