I’m back from NI Week 2014 held in Austin, TX and sponsored by National Instruments. One take away from NI Week that was abundantly clear was how much NI is investing in embedded systems. NI has been pushing really hard for years to penetrate the design phases of the V-curve of product development. The company has been extremely successful in growing its business on the test side of the house, meaning, once the client product has been developed, characterized and launched and now needs to be tested in production. The company also has had some level of success in the very early phases of product development, the prototyping phase. Since its tools are very well suited for rapid prototyping, they are somewhat appealing to the product development Engineers during the very early stages of product development.
I have talked about in previous posts how LabVIEW FPGA has been helping in bridging that gap to some extent. After all, that puts the FPGA technology, once only available to product design Engineers, in the hands of test Engineers through LabVIEW programming. Not only that but, since there is a FPGA now available, the prototyping phase can get one step closer to the actual final product, as there is a significant percentage of products these days that take advantage of the FPGA technology.
This certainly shortens the distance between product design and product test. However, there is currently a gap where NI products are not necessarily successful, and from the company’s perspective, this gap is what needs to be bridged if the Company is to reach its five-billion dollar a year in revenue goal that was made public during NI Week. This gap is between early phases prototyping and final production testing; which is the actual client product itself. NI’s dream is to become as strong in OEMing their products into its client’s products as they currently are in the tail end production testing. OEM stands for original equipment manufacturer and it refers to companies that make products for others to repackage and sell. Resellers usually buy OEMproducts in bulk, minus the costly retail packaging that comes with individually sold units.
It is easy to see the rationale behind this dream. Once a NI product is successfully O&M’d into a client’s product, NI would enjoy repeated revenue for the entire life of the client’s product. Moreover, at that point, the client’ sales force would be indirectly working for NI, as more sales for the client products would mean more sales for the NI O&M’d product.
NI’s pitch its customers in pushing this dream was basically reusability all across the board. The idea being that the customer would use a PXI system in the prototype phase, then the same code base (or something very close to it) could be reused as part of the actual product itself by changing the form factor to single board RIO or something more packageable, and also be reused as part of the end of the line production test system using PXI. NI quickly saw the two main problems with this approach: 1) It is very difficult to justify utilizing a single RIO on the final packaged product, unless real estate wasn’t a problem; which usually are for consumer applications and 2) NI products are expensive, even at volume discounts. One can purchase a single board RIO for maybe $700ish in volume. A single board RIO is mainly a PCB with a processor, a FPGA and some memory. A skilled digital designer can create something similar to it for much less than $100 for sure.
NI announced what they believe to be their solution to these two issues, to be made available in December; the system on module, or SOM for short. The system on module is based off of the Xilinx Zynq system on chip that carries an ARM processor and a beefy FPGA. NI’s SOM obviously can be programmed with the LabVIEW toolset and is housed in a small sized PCB that can be much more easily packaged into an OEM solution. Also, its price point, as claimed by NI, will be much more competitive than single board RIO, which also carries a FPGA and a processor on board, especially in higher volume.
Whether or not this will be a successful move is obviously yet to be seen, however this certainly shows the direction the overall organization is going and how important embedded systems have become for the overall company strategy.