Reflecting on 40 years of test and measurement

28 March 2017

Dr James Truchard, CEO and co-founder of National Instruments (NI), talks about the changes he has seen in test and measurement technology in the past 40 years.

Since 1976 the test and measurement industry has gone from being an industry driven by vacuum tube technology in the era of general radio through a time when the transistor ruled with Hewlett Packard, up to the present day, when software truly is the instrument – a transition helped by NI. Moore’s law has taken us for a wild, fast ride and just when you think it’s run its course, process innovations extend into new dimensions (literally) and push performance even further.

When Jeff Kodosky, Bill Nowlin, and I started NI in 1976, we saw room for innovation in how engineers and scientists interacted with and built test and measurement equipment. We believed that there was a better way to serve the test and measurement needs that we – engineers and scientists – faced. 

The general purpose interface bus (GPIB, IEEE 488) was our gateway. While others might have seen GPIB as a hardware player, we recognised it for what it enabled in terms of software. As the PC industry evolved the GPIB cable made it easy to analyse and present data in a customised way. Users were no longer confined to the front panel of an instrument and their pencils and notepads for data acquisition. 

The opportunity to innovate then shifted to the software world, where programming languages needed instrument drivers for the connected boxes. Our strategy of writing and supporting those drivers offered a critical service that continues today.

Engineers and scientists still needed to use tools designed for computer science to perform engineering, test, and measurement tasks. Our answer was twofold: LabWindows/CVI, to offer engineering-specific tools in ANSI C programming, and LabVIEW, a graphical programming paradigm that took the way we think about solving a problem (in flowcharts and pictures) and turned it into compiled code. The story was simple – acquire, analyse, and present. Do it in software tools designed for a customer’s use case that were easy to learn yet extremely powerful. We coined the phrase ‘The software is the instrument’ to describe this approach.

Because LabVIEW is graphical it is tailor-made for parallel processing. LabVIEW users were among the first programmers to migrate from single-core processors to multiple threads and multiple cores and see almost instant speed improvements. 

However, the toolchains and programming constructs were inaccessible to most mechanical engineers who were not digital design experts. We recognised this in the late 1990s with LabVIEW’s graphical paradigm. 

When you think about software as as we have, it’s easy to think differently about hardware, too and the creation of modular, PC-based plug-in boards were a natural by-product. Make the hardware as lightweight and cost-effective as possible and focus on ADCs, DACs, signal conditioning, and data movement. 

The future
There are glimpses of the future everywhere. Modern factories feature ‘cyberphysical systems,’ which combine software-centric computing technology with electromechanical systems and human operators to improve safety, efficiency, and cost structures. The ‘acquire, analyse, and present’ concept is still valid, but we’ve added ‘sense, compute, and connect’ as a parallel flow for IoT devices. Wireless technology in general is pervasive. The more you connect things, the more you can take advantage of data. 

As our capabilities become more advanced and the scale of the problems we try to solve grows and tools must be easier to navigate. Just as machine language migrated to assembly and to object-oriented, other paradigms, including graphical dataflow programming, are critical to offer the right level of abstraction. 

No great innovation will be done alone. The best platforms we use today are effective because they’ve fostered an ecosystem. Our software-centric approach spawned a partner network of more than 1,000 companies and 300,000 active LabVIEW users. The rise of mobile devices and ‘apps’ is possible only because of a healthy ecosystem built on developer-friendly platforms. Team-based development, code sharing, and community support soon will no longer be novel or best in class. They will be expected.

My advice to any new engineer is simple – develop a vision for the future and pursue it with intensity. And, at the end of the day, don’t be afraid to have fun.

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