Jon Severn, editor of MachineBuilding.net, met National Instruments' John Hanks, Vice President of Product Marketing, Industrial & Embedded (pictured right), at the NIDays event and discussed how National Instruments' hardware and software products can help machine builders.
A combination of technological progress and associated product launches mean that National Instruments (NI) has a broader portfolio for machine builders today than it did three years ago; also the distinction between traditional 'industrial' machinery and machinery with embedded control is now becoming blurred. Products such as CompactRIO (short for compact real-time I/O) and the LabVIEW SoftMotion Module, coupled with the way in which NI's ranges of hardware and software enable control algorithms to be migrated from one hardware platform to another, are proving to be highly advantageous for machine builders, almost regardless of how you choose to define 'machine.' Of course, there are still many machines for which a traditional PLC is the optimum type of controller, but NI's products can offer substantial advantages for applications requiring a mixture of control, measurement, analogue and digital I/O, and signal processing.
Hanks says that one of the most exciting developments for machine builders is the way the LabVIEW-SolidWorks integration via its SoftMotion module enables engineers to close the loop between design and simulation. Using SoftMotion, engineers can take a LabVIEW control algorithm and a SolidWorks model, then use the control algorithm to drive the model and view the results in real time. Either or both of the model and the control algorithm can be modified and the simulation rerun, enabling designs to be tested, refined and optimised very rapidly before any commitment is made to buying components, cutting metal or commissioning tooling. Closing the loop between design and simulation in this way not only reduces project risk and helps companies to deliver products that are right-first-time, but it also helps to save development costs, improve the productivity of engineers and reduce the time to market.
In the last three years, wireless has also developed, as Hanks explains: "Wireless is now almost ubiquitous, especially for test applications, and we are seeing similar progress in measurement." Ease of set-up, high levels of functionality and reliability, and potential for cost savings are making wireless systems attractive. No longer is wireless to be viewed as a 'technology of last resort' but rather as a versatile alternative on a par with conventional communication technologies. "Wireless is certainly one area where we will see further exciting developments and more widespread use in the future," states Hanks.
Advanced control techniques
Parallel computing, where use is made of multicore processors, is another technology for which Hanks sees a bright future (see this article about how machine builders can benefit from multicore technology). With machines getting more complex and customers demanding better performance, advanced control techniques are being adopted instead of traditional PLCs and PID controls. Parallel computing is a fast-moving field, so companies that have delayed making investments during the recession could potentially benefit from improved technology if the investment is made one or two years later than originally planned.
LabVIEW, the graphical programming software around which much of NI's business is based, is inherently well suited to parallel computing. While this gives NI a distinct advantage, another major factor in NI's favour is the company's philosophy of developing its own hardware. While many businesses that start in software remain forever focussed on software, NI - like Apple - has proved that synergies can arise from having a portfolio that contains both software and hardware. For example, NI's expertise in FPGA (field-programmable gate array) enables customers to benefit from these versatile and high-performance devices but without having to have the traditional skills required for programming them.
It is easy to concentrate on the hardware and software products available from NI, but customers also benefit enormously from the 'community' or 'ecosystem' that encompasses NI and its customers. For example, the NI Developer Zone is an area on the NI website with tutorials, webcasts and videos, plus there is example code that is largely provided by NI customers, freely downloadable for others to use. Similarly, the LabVIEW Tools Network enables visitors to browse hundreds of add-on tools and products for developing test, measurement and control applications; these are largely supplied by third-party hardware vendors. Another invaluable resource is the discussion forums, where visitors can search the archives for a solution to their problem or ask a question. While NI's engineers monitor the forums and provide answers if required, in the majority of cases the answers are provided by other users. Taken together, these online resources can save development teams hours, months or even years of work.
Looking to the future, Hanks believes that NI will be in a strong position post-recession: "I believe NI is positioned to emerge in a stronger leadership position because of our long-term focus through the recession. Interestingly, NI has continued to invest in strategic areas of the business such as R&D and field sales and actually hired 51 new people in the last quarter. This hiring comes from our strong established model of recruiting recent graduates from top universities, in addition to more recently increasing our investment in recruiting experienced engineering talent."
Machine builders who are not familiar with NI's ranges of hardware and software can get a taste of the latest news and products by looking at the list on MachineBuilding.net. Alternatively, visit www.ni.com or use the form on this page to request a callback or more information.