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All in a week’s work

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One can only stand back and admire the National Instruments sales and marketing machine. The Austin, Texas, company certainly knows how to promote itself, its products and, it’s fair to say, the benefits of the electronics industry to the man in the street.

But NI is much more than hype. Engineers come to NI Week because they trust the company to build on its reputation for quality hardware and software products that will enable them to get ahead of their own competition. And there’s the little matter of an associated 150 stand exhibition of third-party applications based on NI’s products. Unless there was significant substance to this conference, over 2000 attendees wouldn’t be flocking to the Austin Convention Centre in the middle of a broiling Texan summer for the tenth year in a row.

NI Week is slick and the company oozes confidence. Having come through the downturn—during which, according to CEO Dr James Truchard, NI never backed off its aggressive investment in R&D—the company says it is on course for the billion US dollar mark by 2008.

Executives discussed the company’s business future with investors and analysts during NI Week. NI first suggested in 2001 that it could reach a billion US dollars a year in revenue by the end of the decade; CFO Alex Davern refined that goal, suggesting that the company could achieve that mark by the earlier date. NI anticipates 2004 revenues to come in near the US$600 million ($830 million) mark; its revenue for 2003 was US$426 million ($588 million).

Back to the future

The keynote speeches at NI week are informative and entertaining, with occasional depreciating humour. NI staff believe in their company and its product, but notably avoid the “evangelising” approach that can taint conferences from other leading US technology firms.

Although already moving beyond its traditional test and instrumentation foundation, the company choose this NI Week to underscore its three-pronged strategy into design, control and test. Encompassed in an icon light-heartedly described as “the flux capacitor from Back to the Future,” by Tim Dehne, NI’s Senior VP of R&D, the keynote speech on the first day demonstrated new product releases that pushed virtual instrumentation and graphical programming software deeper into areas traditionally serviced by specialist products.

“We want to turn LabVIEW programmers into hardware design engineers,” says Dehne.

I wrote about using LabVIEW to program FPGAs the last time I visited NI Week back in 2002, and NI has been working on the technology for at least five years. NI has chosen too partner with programmable chipmaker Xilinx, and although the company doesn’t discount using other FPGA vendors in the future, this partnership is by far the most advanced.

LabVIEW, allied to a new signal measurement product, SignalExpress, for system-level design, expands on the companies successful foray into FPGA programming and real-time operating systems. According to Dr Truchard, NI is already involved in signal acquisition, test, measurement and automation, so embedded system design is the next logical step. (See below for more information on new product releases.)

Dr Truchard expanded the theme during his keynote speech. According to NI’s president, trends in embedded system design, including the move from low-level tools to platform-based tools and from single processors with one operating system to multiple processors with multiple operating systems, make LabVIEW “a natural fit” for this area. He explained how design engineers need a platform-based tool that, like LabVIEW, can address multiple models of computation while eliminating the complexity that limits application development.

Taking control

Dr Truchard also discussed major strides that virtual instrumentation has made in industrial control.

“In the new view of programmable automation controllers, virtual instrumentation serves both the traditional industrial control market and the advanced control market with the same software and hardware,” he says. “The phrase ‘0 to infinity’ defines this new kind of control.”

Programmable Automation Controllers are mounting a challenge to PLCs in the process control sector and NI released its ruggedised CompactRIO offering for this market at NI Week. (See panel Taming the Beast and below for more on CompactRIO.)

Perhaps unsurprisingly though, NI wasn’t about to miss the opportunity of as significant an event as the tenth anniversary, without returning to its T&M foundations. Most notable among the the DAQ products was the announcement of the M Series boards, equipped with Xilinx chips, and powered by LabVIEW for FPGA, allowing test engineers to customise these powerful products for their specialist application.

For the final day’s keynote, Dr Jeffrey Orsak, Director of the Infinity Project, injected some food for thought by exploring the challenges the Western World faces from burgeoning Indian and Chinese economies. Dr Orsak noted that entrants into technology degrees were declining in the US, Europe and Australia while those in Asia were escalating dramatically. It was a sobering presentation.

Fast forward with SignalExpress

One of the most exciting products announced at NI Week—and of significant interest to both silicon design engineers and their compatriots in the test engineering department—was Signal Express. The company describes the product as an interactive software environment for acquiring, comparing, automating, testing and storing measurement signals.

It allows engineers to use virtual instrumentation on the benchtop to save valuable time by automating measurements for design, debugging, characterisation and validation labs.

“Designers [can] quickly measure and compare signals with imported design data,” says Dr Truchard. “In the past, [engineers] spent hours acquiring and analysing measurements manually with traditional benchtop instruments. Today’s electronic devices require more tests to verify and validate a design without additional time in the product development cycle for engineers.

“With this new software, engineers can easily combine design simulation data with measurements through an easy-to-use, drag-and-drop environment that does not require programming,” concludes Dr Truchard.

“Simulation tools such as National Semiconductor’s Webench give engineers a preliminary look at how a circuit works. With SignalExpress an engineer can quickly do a ‘reality check’ on designs using real-time measurement data,” explains Bob Pease, staff scientist at National Semiconductor. “I wouldn’t build a production board based on SPICE alone, but I will trust real-world bench measurements taken with NI hardware.”

NI explains that SignalExpress integrates with EDA tools to “instantly acquire and compare real and simulated measurements in the time and frequency domains”. The software integrates with the LabVIEW graphical programming environment.

In good news for the test engineering department, it is possible to convert their SignalExpress projects to LabVIEW block diagrams for applications such as automated system validation and manufacturing test.

In addition, it’s possible to combine the interactive measurement software with NI M Series and NI E Series multifunction DAQ devices, NI signal generators and NI high-speed digitisers.

Lowering the cost

The second major product release announced at NI Week concerned a significant addition to the company’s range of multifunction data acquisition (DAQ) products based on the a new system controller ASIC and amplifier technology. Dubbed the M Series, the multifunction DAQs are said to lower the cost per I/O channel by more than 30 percent.

There are 20 devices in the series offering low-cost, high-performance and high-accuracy applications.

“The NI-STC 2 consolidates several discrete chips into a single ASIC for more performance in a smaller space,” says Tim Dehne. “And NI-PGIA 2 amplifier technology improves accuracy.”

The core of each M Series device is the synchronisation and timing controller, which allows up to six operations to execute simultaneously at throughput rates said to be up to five times faster than previous DAQ devices.

The products offer calibration at every input range, again said to improve measurement accuracy by up to five times in addition to extending the recommended calibration interval on most M Series devices to two years.

In addition, the DAQ cards offer up to 32 18-bit analogue input channels, four 16-bit analogue outputs, two 32-bit counter/timers and 48 digital I/O lines. Each M Series device includes the latest version of NI-DAQmx measurement services driver software.

Tough performer

NI’s Reconfigurable I/O (RIO) technology endows LabVIEW developers the ability to define custom measurement hardware circuitry using on-board Xilinx FPGA chips and LabVIEW.

“RIO technology delivers [flexibility] benefits to a broader range of engineers and scientists by eliminating the steep learning curve traditionally required to program FPGAs,” claims Tim Dehne. “Graphical programming of FPGAs extends virtual instrumentation by empowering LabVIEW users to synthesise their own custom measurement circuitry that rivals the performance … of vendor-defined hardware.”

The CompactRIO embedded system features a real-time embedded processor, four or eight-slot reconfigurable chassis containing a user-programmable FPGA, and 10 hot swappable industrial I/O modules. Each I/O module includes built-in field wiring connectivity, signal conditioning, conversion circuitry and an optional isolation barrier.

The compact unit can withstand up to 50 G of shock.

By using the FPGA users are able to program embedded LabVIEW applications deterministically at rates up to 100 times faster than previously possible (see panel).

In control applications, CompactRIO allows engineers to implement multiloop analogue PID control systems at loop rates exceeding 100 ks/s and digital control systems at loop rates up to 1 Ms/s.

Further information: NI 1800 300 800.

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