In my opinion, one of National Instrument’s biggest visionary moves, after the creation of LabVIEW of course, was the decision to port LabVIEW to FPGA targets. I was still working for NI when that buzz started happening internally. In fact, I was fortunate enough to be the first LabVIEW Alpha tester while working for the National Instruments LabVIEW R&D department. I confess that my young mind at that time didn’t quite grasp the genius of that move. I remember thinking to myself: “FPGA? But NI is a test house, not a design house. This will be another Field Point attempt”. For the ones of you who are not familiar with NI’s Field Point platform, Field Point was NI’s attempt to have LabVIEW running on an embedded target that could penetrate the PLC market. The PLC market wasn’t, and still isn’t, for NI’s products.
Fast forward fifteen years, the NI RIO, or reconfigurable IO, platform become the biggest growth product line for NI and allowed scientists and engineers to solve even more complex test and measurements problems. As it turns out, NI proved that FPGA also belongs in test, not solely in design. Now that I see the end result of that vision I thought was another attempt of something that didn’t work, the Field Point platform, I can say the NI RIO platform, which is only made possible by LabVIEW FPGA, is a great example showcasing a company’s ability to learning from past mistakes, adapting and coming back even stronger.
National Instruments certainly learned that LabVIEW is much more powerful than ladder logic, during the attempt to have Field Point going toes to toes against PLCs. In fact, LabVIEW is too powerful for applications that can be solved with simple ladder logic and the moderate power of PLCs. NI learned that the PLC industry probably doesn’t have much space for innovation. It also learned that the technicians and Engineers who have used PLCs for decades most likely won’t be open minded to a new technology once the known ladder logic seems to be solving all of their problems.
At that point, once that lesson was learned, NI decided to “profit from the core” (this is actually the title of an excellent book on market intelligence that I strongly recommend. Here it is the link for it on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Profit-Core-Return-Growth-Turbulent/dp/1422131114). NI’s core is innovation. They pride themselves in investing a fairly significant amount of its profits in R&D and one of its internal mottos is that they hire the best and the brightest. What this means is that NI’s true niche is not necessarily general test and measurements, but innovation in test and measurements.
Think about this for a moment. LabVIEW itself is probably one of the greatest innovative moves in the test and measurements industry. It completely changed the old paradigm that only computer scientists and software engineers could write test software and put that power in the hands of all engineers and scientists. Along with that came innovation on the hardware side. The utilization of the PC platform as the basis for “the Software is the Instrument” movement whereas LabVIEW was used to configure functionality of data acquisition systems into customized instrumentation functionality. A true revolution and change to the old box instrument paradigm.
NI learned from the Field Point experiment that its niche is really innovation in test and measurements and decided to realign itself with that vertical market. The RIO platform is also an embedded, rugged, real time platform running LabVIEW, much like what Field Point claimed to be. However, the RIO platform carries the innovation component of allowing the user to actually change the personality of the system IO on the hardware level, through LabVIEW FPGA. The problems that could be solved by such powerful proposition reach way beyond the good old open/close relays and control Variable Frequency Drivers through 4-20mA signals; which is the PLC’s reign. Moreover, LabVIEW FPGA and RIO brought to the test industry the FPGA, a component that until then was marginalized as a design component only.
It takes a true market visionary to foresee that a totally new paradigm will be accepted by an industry. However, such glimpses of genius are usually supported by a foundation of being truthful to one’s identity. On this case, it was the recognition of a mistake made by investing on a vertical market that was outside of the company’s niche of T&M innovation and repackaging the same high level vision of having LabVIEW running on embedded platforms to something really revolutionary, LabVIEW FPGA and RIO.