NIWeek 2018: Future faster…

Author : Mark Gradwell, Consultant Editor

10 July 2018

NIWeek, NI's annual global user conference, brings together thousands of industry professionals to learn about the NI software-centric platform for accelerating productivity in T&M systems. 'Future faster', 2018’s theme, focused on accelerating time-to-market through open-platform systems, powerful software and improved networking capabilities.

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NIWeek has long been an important event in the calendar for engineers building test and measurement systems, a large-scale production where industry disruptor, National Instruments has traditionally unveiled its latest and greatest software and hardware releases in front of a sizeable and largely friendly crowd of NI users – the ‘LabVIEW love-in’ as I’ve heard it described as.

This was my first visit for three years – and my first since co-founder and former CEO, Dr James Truchard, retired, to be replaced as President and CEO by Alex Davern, former CFO and COO.

My experience kicked off with a press conference ahead of NIWeek, hosted by Luke Schreier, NI Vice President of Automated Test Marketing, which trailed the week’s key product releases.

Straight away, this established some key themes for the week. Schreier told us that the announcements were software-focused, reiterating that NI is a software company at its heart – although, of course, it also develops and manufactures a wide range of modular measurement hardware platforms. Schreier also told us that the software innovations he would talk to us about were designed to address the need for increased productivity in engineering workflows.

Megatrends driving test

He outlined three technology megatrends that are driving this need: the design and rollout of 5G communications networks; the IoT; and the transformation occurring in automotive, with increasing electrification and the development of the underlying technologies, such as ADAS and V2X, that will enable autonomous vehicles.

He argued these are driving increasing DUT complexity, with electronics content increasing as connectivity and computing intelligence is added to all manner of ‘things’, compressed test times as pressure increases to accelerate time-to-market, and also smaller engineering teams, as businesses face increased cost pressures, as well as shortages of engineering talent.

He shared data from their Test Leadership Forum, which brings together test engineering leaders from across many industries to discuss challenges and share best practices, showing that the top two factors when considering a new test system were faster test throughput/cycle time and software/application development time. This makes customisation, he argued, a key requirement for test system development – validating NI’s open, software-defined platform for test and measurement over closed, fixed-functionality, vendor-defined systems.

“LabVIEW is the answer”

Schreier then went on to introduce the latest versions of NI’s flagship software platform, LabVIEW 2018 and its next-generation partner, LabVIEW NXG. Schreier acknowledged that NI’s answer for the last 32 years to any question about measurements across the product development process has been LabVIEW – but although LabVIEW is still the heart of NI’s plaform approach, it seems like this is beginning to change a little.

Since announcing version 1 of the next-generation LabVIEW NXG, NI have had the tricky balancing act of trying to support, develop and market (though users get both versions together) two different code-bases. And with some of the other software releases announced, it seems like NI is also beginning to see the value of implementing some functionality in dedicated, focused software packages outside of LabVIEW.

The latest version of LabVIEW NXG, released earlier in 2018, expanded hardware support, reduced set-up time with new system configuration and management functionality, and introduced new web-ready deployment capabilities. LabVIEW 2018 was focused on complex applications, distributed systems and streamlined development.

Developers can now reuse more IP through native Python script calls with the Python Node. Test engineers can also now strengthen code reliability by automating the building and execution of software using a command line interface and more easily distribute code using industry-standard package formats with native package building.

Verification & validation

Drilling down into the product development workflow and focusing on verification and validation (V&V) testing, Schreier introduced FlexLogger, a new configuration-based software tool for acquiring, visualising and logging data in V&V workflows – all without programming.

Designed to address certain key automotive challenges, FlexLogger helps validate new and rapidly evolving technologies to keep pace with vehicle electrification and ADAS. Engineers can use FlexLogger to help simplify test configurations and extract key insights with sensor-specific workflows to acquire and log synchronised, mixed measurements. It aims to help them meet demands like testing higher complexity DUTs and shorter timeframes, giving them tools tailored to their application requirements that they can efficiently use through their workflow.

Production test

Addressing another pain point in the workflow, production test, Schreier introduced InstrumentStudio, new software to simplify the development and debugging of automated test systems. Shipping with NI’s PXI modular instruments, InstrumentStudio improves the live, interactive use model for PXI modular instruments, and makes debugging while running tests more intuitive.

It evolves the concept of single-instrument soft front panels into a unified, multi-instrument environment, allowing engineers in the aerospace, automotive and semiconductor industries to benefit from a more effective workflow for test system development.

Schreier also introduced SystemLink, application software for distributed asset and systems management, designed to help test engineers to build systems faster and manage them better. SystemLink enables remote management of test devices and systems via a central web application, with coordinated software deployments across groups of systems. It allows test engineers to track system health with monitoring services, alarms and notifications, and remotely monitor automated test procedures with custom graphical dashboards and test reports, as well as aggregate data from multiple systems.

Keynotes

As the conference proper started for delegates, the NIWeek keynotes are where a lot of the magic happens, with the big new product announcements and cool customer applications, wrapped up in high-production values delivery from a collection of key NI leaders. In recognition of the global nature of NI’s audience, the keynotes are also streamed live and recorded for on-demand viewing, available at their website.

Eric Starkloff, NI executive vice president, Sales & Marketing, kicked things off, talking about systems thinking in the technology ecosystem and how closed systems can’t scale to meet the needs of the changing world around them. The world is a giant interconnected system, he argued: the natural world has always been an ecosystem, but now we’ve created an engineered world – a technology ecosystem – that defines our modern lives.

Preaching to the choir, perhaps – but Starkloff’s inspirational and well-received message to his engineering audience was that their work and contributions enable the best parts of our engineered world – and that the work they do, the problems they solve, is what will inspire the next generation.

He also encouraged them to focus on real engineering – solving grand challenges, rather than merely working on distractions. Starkloff was followed by Luke Schreier, who introduced three customer examples of open platform test and measurement systems across automotive, semiconductor and military & aerospace.

Essentially, the message was you can’t have cool technology – from 5G to the IoT to AI to autonomous vehicles – without an ecosystem of state of the art test & measurement tools and systems. Again, an easy sell for the audience in the room – but a sound message all the same.

Over the remaining keynotes, NI executives and other speakers from NI’s R&D and product marketing ranks, aided by customers, introduced a range of new software and hardware measurement technologies, reinforcing CEO, Alex Davern’s message, that NI invests around 19% of NI revenues back into R&D – which he claims is the highest of any T&M company.

NI co-founder and father of LabVIEW, Jeff Kodosky also retained his traditional keynote spot in the post-Dr T era, providing a change of pace and style – and possibly a welcome counterpoint to the usual high octane slick production – as well as his customary insightful and interesting view into the future of his creation.

This year, he talked about how more complex systems and environments require more complex test and measurement systems – which demands more sophisticated tools that can reduce complexity and support higher levels of abstraction.

Final word on autonomous vehicles

The final keynote included a fascinating industry experts’ panel discussion on autonomous cars, hosted by Starkloff.

One of the key takeaways: crashes are inevitable, even with autonomous driving; so yes, we should be concerned about autonomous driving – but we should be absolutely terrified about human driving!


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