National Instruments Touts Innovation at NI Week

Among the latest examples are the most recent version of the company’s flagship LabView product line, as well as a foray into wireless sensor networking

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The annual National Instruments Corp. (www.ni.com) “geek bash” called NI Week was held August 4-6 in Austin, Texas, where the company, a maker of test and control products, is headquartered. President and co-founder James Truchard (Dr. T) greeted a record crowd in the opening keynote with a remark about how the “financial engineers,” who helped create the economic mess in which the world finds itself, should go back and do “real engineering” to help get us out.

“Math the way it's been taught in business schools has serious flaws,” Truchard declared. Warren Buffet, the noted Omaha, Neb.-investor, called it a “false perception” of reality, Truchard said. In a later meeting with editors, he said that business schools are trying to apply the laws of physics to an area with a lot more variation.

Real-time math

Truchard used this as a jumping off place to promote the added “real-time” math capabilities in the latest revision of the company's flagship programming platform—LabView 2009. The new release also moves LabView more heavily into systems design. Truchard then went on to tackle a “Business Week” headline about not enough innovation, by pointing out the many ways LabView users have been innovating.

NI is a company that prides itself on technological innovation. Some companies may be sales-driven, a few may be marketing-driven, but NI is still a nimble, technology-driven company, many observers agree. And nowhere is this seen like the latest release of LabView and its supporting cast of hardware.

The latest generations of chips offer a fertile field for NI engineers. Chip-maker Intel Corp.’s multicore microprocessors offer the opportunity to show off LabView's inherent parallelism, according to NI. With LabView, programmers can target parts of programs to run on separate cores of the processor and then be reassembled to accomplish its task, NI says. For example, data acquisition and analysis could run on one core at the same time another core is driving the display. Meanwhile another core could be controlling some I/O.

NI co-founder and “father of LabView” Jeff Kodosky wondered during his keynote why computer science departments have not seized upon LabView for courses in parallel programming, since it’s the only graphical platform for doing it, he said. LabView is not inherently sequential as are text-based languages. It operates with parallel data flow rather than sequential control.

Wireless, NI style

NI has dipped into the wireless sensor network (WSN) arena—but in its own terms and in its own way. It unveiled WSN nodes built with radios based on the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ IEEE 802.15.4 standard that connect in a “mesh” networking topology. The protocol stack is based on the ZigBee standard, with modifications for things NI needed. For example, NI believes that computing devices communicate using Internet Protocol (IP), so its engineers wanted to incorporate that into the network.

Mentioned almost as an aside is one of the most powerful parts of the entire system—LabView embedded on a node. It won't be a full-blown version of LabView, but it will be enough that a node can be a controller, or at least an analyzer of raw data, before reporting status and information back to a system.

Dassault Systèmes SolidWorks Corp. (www.solidworks.com), the Concord, Mass., maker of computer-aided design (CAD) software, has become a partner to the extent that “soft motion control” in LabView can team up with the CAD environment at the design stage so that mechanical and electrical/control engineers can collaborate at an early project stage and see what a machine can do before cutting chips on the factory floor. This partnership has the potential for a powerful leap forward in machine design, NI said.

Dassault Systèmes SolidWorks Corp.
www.solidworks.com

National Instruments Corp.
www.ni.com

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