National Harbor, MD. Dr. James Truchard, president and CEO of National Instruments, Wednesday morning delivered his first Autotestcon keynote address, titled “The Evolution of Test Instrumentation.” “It’s a pleasure to be here,” he said.
He recounted how when he was working on Navy sonar beamformers and transducers, he realized that no test gear for what he needed existed, so he designed his own. Virtual instruments. That beginning has led to today’s National Instruments, a $1.2 billion per year company with 7,080 employees. NI works with 35,000 organizations, he said, including 7,000 universities, and no one industry represents more than 15% of the company’s sales.
“The test and measurement industry is alive and well,” he said. “Our mission is to make scientists and engineers successful and to accelerate productivity, innovation, and discovery. We take a lot of pride in making our customers more efficient.”
Like any public company, NI takes a quarterly view of finances and an annual view of sales forecasts, but the company takes long-term views as well. Dr. Truchard said NI takes a five-year view of products and markets while also developing a 10-year strategic vision of development platforms. There’s even a 100-year plan, focused on core values.
Dr. Truchard then reviewed his early pioneering work on the AN/FQM 12 sonar transducer test system. At the time, he said, a 12-bit 2-MHz A/D converter, worth 50 cents today, cost $5,000 and consumed 35 W. The sonar test work led to the founding of NI, which in the first decade focused on GPIB.
In the second decade, he said, the focus shifted to the software side, in which softwqare became instrumental in implementing whole test-and-measurement systems. Third decade saw an emphasis on modular instrumentation, VXI first and then PXI as well as the rugged CompactRIO and CompactDAQ platforms.
In the fourth decade, NI recognized the role of software in facilitating a platform-based approach, in which hundreds and thousands of users could leverage the software. Apple iOS, he said, represents a well-known platform based approach. With a platform-based approach, he said, and with the sharing technology among many users, engineers can build a system in fraction of time required for a piecemeal approach.
In its fifth decade, NI emphasizes cyberphysical systems and software-defined instruments as well as Big Analog Data. The technology is now available, he said, to make Big Analog Data more usable, and graphical system design for test and measurement and embedded control and monitoring, is moving more and more to software, where the hardware is basically an A/D converter. The capability, he said, extends from baseband to RF—all in the same platform—and it supports concurrent design and test of components and systems—a point he emphasized with a V diagram, with system integration occurring at the bottom of the V.
Dr. Truchard cited several application examples. In 2012, he said, was able to speed up WLAN test 200 times with a PXI test system using FPGA-based instruments. And protocol-aware test systems can speed the test of unique, programmable digital interfaces.
Standards too, play a role, he said, such at the ATML automated test markup language and specifications promulgated by the IVI Foundation.
Dr. Truchard said a goal had been to do for test and measurement what spreadsheet did for financial analysis—provide off-the-shelf tools to build systems. He traced the evolution of instruments from the 1920s—the vacuum-tube era. The period from 1965 to 2010 represented the transistor era, and now, he said it’s the software that matters, taking “center stage in instrumentation.”
Of particular interest to many Autotestcon attendees is legacy instrumentation. When upgrading such systems, he said, you need to keep in mind that the success of your new system will depend on being able to emulate your old system’s behavior. A software-based approach can help emulate legacy instrumentation.
Dr. Truchard also said he sees a significant opportunity in semiconductor ATE. A software-based approach can span early test and validation to high-speed volume production test with same hardware and software system based on PXI. “PXI is central to our approach,” he said. Created in mid 1990s and leveraging PC technology, PXI takes advantage of Moore’s Law and allows software-compatibility across generations of technology.