National Instruments enters manual lab bench instrument market

-June 16, 2014

National Instruments has been a player in measurement automation since the 1970s.  With today’s announcement of NI VirtualBench, NI is now also aiming squarely at manual lab bench users.

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Whoa!  How does a company that avoids equipment with knobs, dials, and displays enter a market that has been nearly defined by the presence of said components?  If you are asking yourself this question, then perhaps you missed the debate I ignited a few months ago when I asked, ”Does test equipment really need knobs and displays?”  I had the pleasure of discussing the VirtualBench introduction with Chris Delvizis, Senior Product Manager for NI.  Referring to my column, Chris said that NI had a categorical answer to that question.  “The answer is no.”

Well then, let’s see what this VirtualBench thing is all about.

NI VirtualBench is shown in the graphic above, along with the interactive display on an iPad.  Users may also interact with Virtual Bench via a PC.

VirtualBench is essentially an all-in-one instrument that combines five of the most common instrument functions into one: a mixed-signal oscilloscope, function generator, DMM, DC power supply, and digital I/O.  According to Chris, this set of measurements comprises the most common needs for the lab bench user.  Users interact with VirtualBench through software applications that run on PCs or iPads.

By integrating these basic functions together, and avoiding custom display costs, NI is able to offer VirtualBench at an attractive price, $1995.  NI claims that this compares favorably to the cost of discrete instruments, which would total $5940.  

So there you have the value proposition: Outfit an entry level lab bench at the fraction of the traditional cost, using affordable but state of the art displays that an engineer is likely to have anyway.  At that price, NI is hoping that all lab benches get outfitted with VirtualBench to start with, while more advanced instrumentation is added as appropriate.

Let’s take a look at some of the technology.  Virtual Bench uses either USB or WLAN to communicate to the display.  It uploads an embedded .exe to a PC, or you may download an app from the Apple store to use the iPad.  The width of the box (I rarely say this when talking about NI, by the way) is that of the iPad.  This small footprint is a clear advantage when compared to five instruments.  The idea of using WLAN is intriguing- it really separates the display from instrument, allowing you to position both for optimum usage.  

The software looks very nice and professional.  I linked to a real-time demo, and the response time and screen update times looked very good.  You could monitor one or all five instruments at a time.  I liked the touchscreen zoom-in feature of the scope.  Whether these are unique features or not, these all come for free whenever you have a touchscreen tablet.  NI pointed out that tablets bring all sort of features for free: zoom in and out, screen capture, email your results.  NI has added a “bump” feature.  Since iPads have an accelerometer inside, NI has enabled a feature that captures the results at the instant of a small bump.  I get it. You are holding both probes on a circuit, and you want to capture a value or screen shot. Move your elbow over and make it happen.

Why is this engineer smiling? Maybe because she can flick her elbow over to trigger a screen capture.

As much as I tried to wrangle out NI’s vision of bench instrumentation going forward, Chris was pretty tight lipped.  Believe me, your humble correspondent tried.  Here’s what I know.  This is definitely not a one-off; NI has more planned. But what that is, and how this all integrates together was left to speculation.  

Well then, speculation is in order.  

First, the big picture.  The test and measurement industry’s core expertise is measurement, not presentation technology.  At one time, you needed to buy these together.  But ubiquitous PCs and tablets present another alternative.  Why not separate the two, and let the billions being invested into mobile computing lead the presentation advances?  This was implied in my October column, and reinforced somewhat in my latest column about boxes being created from PXI.

NI is seizing this opportunity.  This is not unexpected, as NI often serves as a disruptor in the test industry, and the new model matches their competencies.  The interesting thing is that NI is not alone.  Check out this recent report from Martin Rowe about RF instruments going faceless at IMS.  Here you find faceless instruments from Anritsu, Rhode & Schwarz, Signal Hound, Copper Mountain, and numerous PXI vendors.  

Let me make a prediction right now: bench instrumentation will transform to displays and measurement engines being separate.  NI’s entry just makes this more certain.  How this is done, which platforms, and how standards are formed around this are the only questions.

As Bob Dylan sang, the times they are a-changin’

See also:

    Does test equipment really need knobs and displays?
The latest trend in PXI is…boxes!

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