Electronic Design

At NI Week, Innovation Always Takes Center Stage

Anyone who has attended NI Week comes to expect a certain level of innovation to be on display, based on products such as LabVIEW. NI Week is, of course, the annual pilgrimage of LabVIEW users to a three-day conference, hosted by National Instruments, that’s filled with education, motivation, excitement, and just plain fun. This year did not disappoint.

James Truchard’s keynote packed the auditorium at the Austin Convention Center. The president, CEO, and co-founder of NI spoke about the economy, innovation, and the LabVIEW community’s impact on engineering’s grand challenges.

Innovation prevailed once again, too. The stage at the keynote was filled with new inventions from the previous year of work—and they were just the tip of the innovation iceberg. NI Week reminds those of us who struggle for new ideas that people come up with innovative concepts all the time, and tools like LabVIEW help transform them into reality.

John Graff, senior VP at NI, says it this way: “Every year, we sell to 30,000 different companies. As you can imagine, we see a lot of very unique and a lot of very innovative applications.” Here are just a few.

A Penetrating Look At Cats And Dogs

James Carver from Jamco Engineering and Ivan Charaminsinau of Animage LLC showed the Fidex, a veterinary imaging scanner.

Fidex, which combines Animage’s imaging software and Jamco’s mechanical design, is a multi-modality X-ray scanner with three basic functions: digital radiography, volume CT, and fluoroscopy. A veterinarian can do a simple X-ray or more complex investigations using 3D imaging or fluoroscopy. Animage was founded in 2008 to bring advanced imaging products to the veterinary market.

Fidex doesn’t execute traditional CT scans, based on slices. Instead, it uses cone-beam tomography. It acquires the image as a volume, all at once. Some of its advantages are faster imaging, ease of use, and a more compact overall size. Carver credited LabVIEW and another NI product, CompactRIO, for enabling the company to develop the prototype system in about nine months. LabVIEW controls the X-ray camera, I/O, and all eight motion axes of the prototype.

A Different Kind of Data Sheet

NI Week attendees also expect to see a handful of unusual presentations. This year was no exception. Rather than a straightforward introduction of new PXI modules, two NI staff members used LabVIEW and a few new PXI products to turn an ordinary datasheet into a real-time multimedia datasheet.

Whereas a typical datasheet shows you a bunch of tests performed on a particular chip, NI R&D guys Jeremy Meier and Ryan Mosley developed a datasheet with their own tests running in real time. The neat thing was the interface: actual datasheets with graphs that continually updated. In other words, they brought the datasheet to life.

This was just a creative and fun way to introduce three new PXI products: the PXIe-6544/6545 100/200-MHz digital I/O boards and the NI PXI-4132 High-Precision Source Measure Unit. According to NI, these and other PXI instruments combined with LabVIEW can test all kinds of chips.

To prove the point and show how NI products can lower the cost of semiconductor test, Graff brought two engineers from Analog Devices up on the stage, Rob O’Reilly and Woody Beckford. They showed a production test system for MEMS microphones that was built using PXI and LabVIEW. Compared to the system they were using, the new system cost significantly less—$40K versus over $450K—and used substantially less power—600 W versus 10 kW. Plus, it was much smaller and lighter—60 lb versus 4000 lb.

And Just for Fun, a Laser Harp

NI’s Chris Delvizis was charged with introducing the R Series Multifunction RIO boards for PCI Express. The four boards in the series all include a Xilinx Virtex-5 FPGA. To show what these boards could do, Chris designed a laser harp. He commented on why he built the harp, which I thought was inspiring: “As engineers, sometimes we just have to take cutting-edge technology and have a little fun. What’s better than taking an FPGA, a high-powered laser, and making something that’s so cool and so awesome that no one would ever do it in real life?”

Chris then demonstrated his invention in the darkened auditorium. From a single laser, several beams of green light were projected in front of him. Whenever he interrupted the light with his fingers, he produced a sound. From those sounds, he was able to play a short rendition of the Star Wars theme music.

The R Series board controls a tiny mirror that quickly rotates and reflects the laser into each beam position, making it look like six beams are present at once. To detect when a beam is broken, the board also measures light intensity from a single photo sensor.

If you want to view the videos of this or any of the other presentations from NI Week, just go to www.ni.com/niweek/keynote_videos.htm.

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