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NI Week: Fun for Engineers

Just returned to my office after spending most of last week at National Instruments’ NI Week 2010 in Austin, Texas. National Instruments’ focus is best described in two words: virtual instrumentation. They develop and market hardware and software tools that development teams use to create their own virtual test and measurement equipment.

NI Week is a yearly technical conference and exhibition to which National Instruments invites users from around the world to share ideas and see the latest in NI tools. For me, NI Week turned out to be a pleasant surprise. I’ve certainly attended my share of technical conferences and exhibitions during my career. Most of the time I spend on the exhibition floor talking to conference attendees about simulation and modeling. And most of the conferences I attend tend to be software related, though some do have booths sprinkled around the exhibit floor displaying hardware – but most of these are static displays. NI Week’s exhibition floor, however, was peppered with real, live, working systems. Vendors brought some of their own wares. And National Instruments invested heavily in many of their own working systems – optical scanners, mini production lines, manufacturing automation, and an electric bicycle just to name a few. Miniature robots wandered some of the aisles. Across from the Mentor Graphics booth, intelligent remote control cars drove around an arena to automatically map the location of several obstacles. One remote control car even drove itself around among the exhibits – though it was monitored closely by a student, just in case the onboard control system went haywire and the car took to attacking the ankles of innocent passersby. In short, NI Week is a mechatronic system designer’s paradise. I liken the event to a “carnival for engineers” rather than a standard, run of the mill conference. While many of the conferences I attend deal more with the front end of the design cycle – modeling and simulation – NI Week 2010 was a “rubber meets the road” event where system designs became things to touch, feel, and test. And with the many autonomous vehicles and remote control robots running around, there truly was rubber on the road – or at least in the aisles.

So why was I at NI Week? Turns out the SystemVision development team recently used our SystemVision SVX technology to develop a link between SystemVision and LabVIEW. Click here to read the announcement. Why is this useful? If you’re concerned about meeting system development deadlines, the explanation is simple. In a typical development flow, system design starts with modeling and simulation, followed by prototyping, test development and eventually test. Turns out that test development and system testing frequently get squeezed between delays in development/prototyping and unforgiving production schedules. Compressed test schedules may result in less than full feature testing. There are only two solutions: either add more time to the development schedule (which might well mean processes up stream from test will just soak up the additional time), or move test development ahead in the development cycle. But without hardware to test, how does the test team develop meaningful tests? Enter SystemVision SVX for LabVIEW. I’ll write more about this interface in a future post, but here is the Reader’s Digest version. Design teams use SystemVision to model, simulate, and analyze their system. The end result is a fully functional, yet virtual, prototype. With the SystemVision SVX link between SystemVision and LabVIEW, test development teams use the virtual prototype as a platform to start test program development. System development and test development proceed concurrently from the early stages of the design process. To illustrate how the process works, we worked with an engineer from Medtronic to develop a mechatronic system, along with a complete LabVIEW test program, for tuning a guitar. Click here for the YouTube video. Mentor Graphics and Medtronic engineers worked concurrently, using SystemVision and LabVIEW, to design the system and develop the test program. With test program in hand, hardware testing started in earnest just a few short days before NI Week. If the traditional design/prototype/test development/test execution flow were followed, the guitar tuning system would have been a no show at NI Week. Test development against the system’s virtual prototype saved the day. Turns out the engineer from Medtronic – responsible for developing the test program in LabVIEW – didn’t even see the hardware until she arrived Monday on the NI Week exhibit floor. Pretty cool…

We talked to many engineers at NI Week, particularly those involved in test development and deployment. Many were intrigued, dare I say even excited, about the ability to get an early start on test development. SystemVision for LabVIEW adds valuable time to what might otherwise be a beleaguered test development schedule.

Mechatronics, Mechatronic

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About Mike Jensen

Mike JensenMost career paths rooted in high technology take many interesting (and often rewarding) twists and turns. Mine has certainly done just that. After graduating in electrical engineering from the University of Utah (go Utes!), I set off to explore the exciting, multi-faceted high tech industry. My career path since has wound its way from aircraft systems engineering for the United States Air Force, to over two decades in applications engineering and technical marketing for leading design automation software companies, working exclusively with mechatronic system modeling and analysis tools. Along the way, I’ve worked with customers in a broad range of industries and technologies including transportation, communications, automotive, aerospace, semiconductor, computers, and consumer electronics; all-in-all a very interesting, rewarding, and challenging ride. In my current gig, I work on technical marketing projects for Mentor Graphics' SystemVision product line. And in my spare time I dream up gadgets and gizmos, some even big enough to qualify as systems, that I hope someday to build -- providing I can find yet a little more of that increasingly elusive spare time. Visit Mike Jensen's Blog

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