What engineers want in DAQ systems (continued)

-October 01, 2010

Fred Molinari of Data Translation

Fred Molinari
President and Founder
Data Translation
Marlboro, MA

Following engineering and marketing positions at EG&G, Analogic, and Analog Devices early in his career, Fred Molinari launched Data Translation in 1973. Since then, the company has expanded its expertise in high-accuracy, high-performance, and easy-to-use dataacquisition products to more than 40 countries. The company operates an extensive network of distributors as well as a subsidiary in Germany. Molinari holds an MBA from Harvard Business School, an MSEE from Northeastern University, and a BSEE from Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

Contributing editor Larry Maloney interviewed Fred Molinari at the Data Translation offices in Marlboro, MA, about the evolution of data-acquisition technology and its broadbased applications.

To read past Viewpoint columns, go to www.tmworld.com/viewpoint

Q: How would you assess the pace of economic recovery in your segment of the test-and-measurement business?
A: July was our best month in a very long time, which is unusual because it is a traditional time for vacations and plant shutdowns, particularly in Europe. But our industry has been in a trough for a long time, and our customers are finally working down their inventories and beginning to restock what they need to support existing products. Introduction of new products is coming slowly, however, because of the uncertainty that still exists about the economy.

Q: What are some of the differences you see in what customers want from data acquisition?
A: End-user customers, such as R&D labs, are very interested in ease of use, so they want built-in programming software and data-acquisition modules that can be connected easily, just as they would a desktop oscilloscope in a lab. OEMs, which make up about 40% to 50% of our business, are looking for modules that fit easily, both mechanically and electrically, into their larger system. The data-acquisition software also must be compatible with the overall software infrastructure of their machine, which is typically Windows.

Price is also very important for OEMs. Their end products have a price target, which means that our data-acquisition technology must sometimes be modified or streamlined to meet that price point, and we are willing to do this if the order volume is large enough.

Q: How do you differentiate Data Translation's approach to data-acquisition from that of other companies in the business?
A: We believe that we are leaders when it comes to the accuracy that we put into the design and manufacture of our products. And that is very important, particularly for OEMs. We do have a large catalog of standard products, and customers can choose the features and characteristics they need for data acquisition. As already noted, we also build in more software capability so that customers can more easily use our products.

Our key niche is really to take USB and now Ethernet to give companies highly accurate measurement capability in a huge variety of industries and applications. Our customer base includes some 3000 companies in a wide variety of fields.

Q: And your approach to software is to encourage open systems?
A: Very much so. We have developed our own software package, Measure Foundry, that offers a powerful, full-featured application-development environment. You can develop applications easily and quickly with the drag-and-drop graphical interface.

Most of our customers work on PCs in a Windows environment, so we've made our instruments and modules readily compatible with our customers' own application-development environment. Every time there is a Windows upgrade, such as the new 64-bit Windows 7 operating system, we upgrade our products. At the same time, our instruments and modules are compatible with other popular software packages used for applications development, such as LabView and Matlab.

Q: How would you rate the popularity of the various buses used in data acquisition?
A: USB is by far the predominant bus today. We still sell boards that go into PCI and other buses for certain niche applications, but most data-acquisition work overwhelmingly calls for USB. We are seeing more interest in Ethernet, particularly in applications where customers want to share data and measurements in real time with colleagues. Many corporate IT departments, however, have serious concerns about putting out R&D data over Ethernet.

Q: Do you see rising interest in USB 3.0, the so-called SuperSpeed USB?
A: This is really a 2011 story. The chips needed for interfacing devices are still under development. Initially, we don't expect to see more than a couple of USB 3.0 ports on PCs, so USB 2.0 will still be predominant for a long time. USB 3.0 does represent a tenfold speed improvement, however, so it will increasingly be in demand in high-performance applications that call for very high data throughput.

Q: Looking back over the 37-year history of your company, what do you see as some of its most significant contributions?
A: We started out building boards that interfaced with a standard 4-bit microcomputer. Then, we expanded that mission to providing analog I/O capability, as well as companion software we called "open layers," for a variety of standard bus structures. Digital Equipment Corp. was a key customer.

Over time, we extended this I/O capability to more and more types of data, as well as to converting analog data to digital. Eventually, we branded this technology evolution as data acquisition. Among other contributions, we were one of the first companies to support the USB interface, and we developed the first multifunction data-acquisition board.

Q: Which global regions are leading the way in driving growth for your company?
We are strongest in North America and in Europe, where we have our subsidiary office in Germany. And we are currently seeing a very nice recovery in business in Germany. In all, we have distribution in 40 countries.

Asia is still a challenge for us, although we are actively pursuing business there, particularly in China, Japan, and Korea. And we are having success with our OEM customers who sell all over the world.

Read the first part of this interview.

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