I have been following the evolution of data acquisition and National Instruments as a company for almost two decades now. My very first contact with the company was back in 1997, when NI opened its Brazilian branch. I was coming fresh out of school as a Controls engineer, looking to make a difference in the world through engineering. As a Controls guy, I was quickly becoming very familiar with the world of PLCs, SCADAS and the like; which was when I was introduced to LabVIEW and National Instruments GPIB and DAQ boards.
I was mesmerized by the power of LabVIEW. I had somewhat mastered PLC ladder logic by then and was starting to dabble into creating user interfaces for SCADA system. It took me five minutes sitting through a LabVIEW demo to see there was something special on that programming environment. As such, I then asked for a visit by the eager newly established local NI sales engineer so I could learn more about the hardware that would go with the LabVIEW software.
NI had a fairly interesting paradigm utilizing PC technology as a backbone to instrumentation, which was basically DAQ boards back then. The whole environment was much more powerful than the PLC-SCADA combo, with the exception that PLCs would run in real time, with deterministic scan times, whereas LabVIEW ran in a non-real time operating system.
Not too long after that first contact I had with the NI platform, I came in contact with LabVIEW real time, which would be basically LabVIEW running on a real time operating system. In my mind I thought: “That’s it! PLCs have their days numbered.”. As history ran its course, it wasn’t quite like that. PLCs held their ground and are still, to this day, the technology of choice for a vast realm of applications. These applications are simple in nature, not requiring great computational power or vast amounts of data acquisition.
That failure in taking over PLC’s market shared pushed NI to go all out and bring the FPGA to play in the test and measurement playground. What used to be just DAQ, quickly became an extraordinarily flexible custom hardware platform for data acquisition. The power of programming FPGAs using LabVIEW expanded the off the shelf paradigm of data acquisition devices for test and measurements to one that could actually be customized by the end user. This new approach would eliminate the need for a full blown custom hardware design in some cases. What used to be done through the usual hardware design cycle of circuit simulation, schematic capture, layout, board fabrication and assembly followed by testing, taking very easily a month from the time the specifications were derived to the time the engineer had the custom hardware in hand, became something that could be done in hours through the customization of an off the shelf device with a FPGA.
Speed to market is the name of the game in today’s pace of technological advances. What used to be done as a combo between off the shelf DAQ devices and custom hardware that would take months to be integrated is now done with the same look and feel of the original off the shelf DAQ offering by NI. They managed to expand the LabVIEW programming paradigm and the power of the off the shelf approach onto applications that require hardware customization.
Fast forwarding, one can say that National Instruments DAQ of today is much more than data acquisition and the good old “the Software is the instrument” paradigm of years back. The evolution of data acquisition led us to the now, and the data acquisition term encompasses data acquisition, real time operating system and custom hardware through LabVIEW; or, a truly embedded platform. This is certainly good news to all of us who love engineering.
One thing to keep in mind though is that, with greater power comes greater responsibility, so to speak. What used to be extremely easy for a new user of the NI platform to come up with a somewhat useful program using the good old DAQ drivers and LabVIEW for Windows has now turned into a much, much more involving proposition. The learning curve for a new user to actually write useful embedded software with the new NI DAQ embedded framework is much steeper. Don’t underestimate this learning curve and make sure to take your time navigating through it before deploying software in the field. This time you work on your foundation on NI DAQ embedded will pay off many times over.