National Instruments adds to its platforms

-August 09, 2013

There are as many ways to innovate as there are companies.  Products.  Services.  Cost.  Reach.  National Instruments is a quintessential platform innovation play.  While some companies find a market or a customer and optimize a product around that application, NI has chosen to invest in a few very flexible and very powerful architectures to address a wide range of applications.  In some ways it seems counter to the mantra of being “customer-focused”, as the platform is, by definition, “general purpose”.  Indeed, it is very difficult to design architectures that must compete against purpose-built products.  But if done right, it can reap huge rewards by creating a business model that turbocharges time to market and flexibility, enabling a company to address a broad set of applications efficiently.

All this is readily apparent to anyone who attended NI Week this past week in Austin, Texas.  Held in the statistically hottest week of the summer, nearly 4000 attendees braved the sauna-like conditions to see the latest products and applications from NI, a new attendance record.  Shiner Boch beer flowed on the exhibition floor to the thirsty crowds, compensating for the triple digit temperatures.  You too can simulate the NI Week experience by following these four easy steps: 

1.    Get dressed
2.    Walk into sauna
3.    Walk into freezer
4.    Stream the keynote videos here

In many ways NI wears their strategy on their sleeve.  CEO Dr. Truchard kicked off the keynote explicitly calling out their platform strategy of “virtual instrumentation”, combining LabView with modular programmable hardware, particularly PXI, CompactDAQ, and CompactRIO.  LabView is ubiquitous across all their hardware products, and key functionality, such as user-programmable FPGAs, is enabled simultaneously across all hardware platforms.  

EDN Senior Editor Janine Love reported on the keynote here, including an ultra-cool application of instrumenting a rocket car that is attempting to break the land speed record.  Today, I’d like to focus this blog post on some new product announcements and applications that may be of particular value to readers of Test Cafe.

The graphic below captures many of the product announcements NI made in automated test.  Readers may recall that last year NI introduced the VST (Vector Signal Transceiver), a flexible PXI RF transceiver that is user customizable via LabView. The 4-slot version which includes baseband IQ access was announced earlier this year at Mobile World Congress. The VST has done very well in the marketplace.  According to Eric Starkloff, Senior Vice President of Marketing for NI, the VST’s launch has been the most successful of any NI hardware product, measured by revenue in the first nine months.  Not bad for a completely new product category, and the sales ramp demonstrates the industry’s migration to PXI as a mainstream RF test architecture.  

Diagram summarizes many of the automated test products launched by National instruments.  RIO (reconfigurable I/O) allows LabView users to target internal FPGAs as well as host controllers or co-processors.  Diagram courtesy of National Instruments.

Let's take a tour around the diagram.  The instrumentation driver extensions enabled by LabView allow a user to customize the internal FPGA via LabView, but while retaining traditional instrument drivers. Hittite Microwave, a provider of RF and microwave components and modules, did just that and experienced a 30x speed improvement over traditional instrumentation.  The bottleneck (if you call 30x a bottleneck) then moved back from the FPGA to the PC, performing floating-point calculations.  Enter PXImc, for multicomputing.  Without going into the gory details, the PXImc standard allows PXI to stream data directly from a PXImc module to another processor for more horsepower.  In this case, a small 2U rack mounted PC was added as co-processor, doubling the speed again.  The Hittite system displayed at the show is a great example of improving performance through updates to the platform.  It also shows how much test time is traditionally consumed by computation, not the raw measurement engine itself.

NI has also added a new FPGA module, the PXIe-7975R, that takes advantage of the latest Xylinx Kintex-7 FPGAs.  The module may optionally connect to adapter modules through a connector on the faceplate to create a more complete instrument.  The NI 5792/5793 pair offers 200MHz of bandwidth up to 4.4GHz.  An 8x8 MIMO system was demonstrated using these modules, compressed into a single PXI chassis.  Readers of Test cafe will recall that MIMO can also mean Modular Instruments Meet Opportunity, MIMO being a naturally modular application.

As I wondered around the exhibition floor, there was a consistent theme to many of the demos- they were FPGA-enabled, customized by the users.  I reported on this trend earlier this year in Test Cafe.  In the mil/aero pavilion I saw an interesting application of a VST repurposed for electronic warfare applications.  The VST would receive a pulse and then, with very low latency, generate “clutter” of many apparent reflected images.  Essentially, it was real-time spectrum modification.  Again, special code in the FPGA was deployed to create this unique functionality.

Radar scatter is shown here, generated by custom FPGA code within the NI VST.

I also spent a few minutes at the demonstrations of AWR, recently acquired by NI.  AWR's product, VSS (Visual System Simulator) is an RF simulation tool.  Though managed as an independent entity, it is clear that the links between VSS and LabView are growing.  Models from each may run in the other.  Test equipment, measuring a component, my be substituted within a VSS model.  It will be interesting to see where this eventually leads, as seamlessly combining simulation and the real world has always been the (yet unobtainable) holy grail.

Walking to the scientific pavilion, applications ranged from monitoring the control system of a fusion nuclear reactor to using muon particles to inspect ships and trucks.  In the former, the ITER project is deploying NI PXI and CompactRIO (using customized FPGAs of course) for real-time monitoring of the control and diagnostic systems.  It will become operational in the 2020s.  

The ITER pit in southern France.  Just pour in concrete, fusion reactors, and sophisticated measurement and control systems.  Image courtesy of ITER.

A portable muon tracker was being demonstrated by the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology. Essentially, muons are created by collisions of high-energy protons into the upper atmosphere.  Hold out your hand, and one intersects it every second or so.  They weakly interact with matter, passing through hundreds of meters of solid rock.  However, the denser the material, the more the scattering.  By using drift tubes surrounding an object, muons can be detected as they enter and exit.  Combine that with high speed digitizers and (you guessed it) custom FPGAs, you can tell how much the muon path has changed or scattered.  And that gives you insight into the density. Very dense material, such as uranium, deflects the muons.  Build a tracking system large enough to put a cargo container through it, and you now can have a uranium detection system at any port of entry.  Very impressive, but get this- this was a college senior project

It is interesting to note the emphasis that was on academia and student learning at NI Week.  From robotics to RF, the exhibition floor displayed a multitude of student projects and teaching-related systems aiming to supercharge the next generation of engineers and scientists.  And to get them properly acquainted with NI products, of course.

Speaking of the exhibition floor, it is pretty impressive.  NI Week has probably become the largest exhibition of conventional test in the industry.  This connects back to NI’s platform strategy of developing a robust ecosystem of partners to fill in the cracks and add unique value.  About 100 exhibitors were present, so I can’t cover them all.  However, I will focus on a couple interesting ones I spoke with.

Averna has been a long time partner of NI, and one of the first users of the VST.  They announced a new RF recording and playback system based on the cost-conscious USRP product.  Averna tells me that the product has gained acceptance in educational and mil/aero markets due to its attractive cost point.  Averna is a good example of an NI partner that adds value not only through software, but from using LabVIEW FPGA to customize the hardware products themselves.

Hiller Measurements displayed PXI development boards that allow manufacturers or end users to quickly develop custom functionality into the PXI format.  I have observed that many test systems have some degree of custom hardware involved.  Why not target that hardware into a chassis that already supplies power, cooling and communication?  This is the objective of the development boards from Hiller Measurements.

Hiller Measurements showed a PXI development board for end users or manufacturers.  The back end contains electronics common to all designs while an engineer adds the specific functionality where the empty breadboard is shown. Just plug it in and go.

Near the end of the first day, your humble correspondent joined four others on a panel discussion titled, ”Is your RF Test Bench Obsolete?”  It was my pleasure to join experienced users and vendors in a spirited discussion of the challenges and opportunities RF applications present to test system vendors and users.  NI’s David Hall was a great moderator, and teased out many sensitive issues.  Don’t take my word for it, view it yourself here.

The wide variety of applications demonstrated by NI PXI and LabView reminds me of the book "The Long Tail" by Chris Anderson.  Brick and mortar bookstores were successful due to the big blockbuster books.  Amazon turned that on its head by addressing the long tail of non-blockbuster books, which total much more than the blockbusters.  Its business model allowed it to do so economically.  Similarly, NI has leveraged its platforms to address a long tail of diverse applications. 

So another NI Week is in the books, and NI again throws down the gauntlet in its mission to redefine the instrument market.  Next month I travel to Autotestcon, an exhibition where many vendors respond with their own innovative offerings.  As always, Test Cafe will bring you the highlights.

Also See
NI Week's cool apps on display
Profiles in Test: Eric Starkloff
NI & AWR: what is happening one year after the merger


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