I have written in past posts that NI took a huge leap upwards as a company when it decided to profit from the core and be truthful to its niche market; innovation in test and measurements. I mentioned how LabVIEW FPGA and the RIO platform changed the game by allowing the FPGA to play more freely in the test and measurements playground.
As all great companies do, NI certainly not only learns from its mistakes, but also from its successes. The company seems to have internalized the concept of playing its strengths and has gotten better and better in carving out vertical markets within its main niche; T&M innovation.
NI Virtual Bench
NI has recently announced the NI Virtual Bench. The Virtual Bench is a single, compact, small footprint, piece of equipment that includes an oscilloscope, digital multi meter, function generator, programmable power supply and some digital IO. All of this packaged with the good old “the Software is the instrument” concept that is one of the reasons NI is what it is today.
This product launch is another attempt at a vertical market; the one of bench top R&D characterization. One of NI’s plays is not only to tackle the production test market, but also try to expand its tentacles upwards into the design world; R&D. It has tried to push PXI and its huge offering of PXI boards as an R&D tool that would allow R&D engineers to perform characterization of products under design.
It is not to say NI wasn’t reasonably successful at going after that niche with its PXI offering; however, usually, R&D engineers don’t have the time to mess around and learn test and measurements in order to create their own applications for characterization. Moreover, they don’t want to waste time in being bogged down by the hundreds (literally) of different PXI boards that are offered at ni.com. Lastly, it can be somehow counterproductive to involve test engineers in creating characterization tools for R&D. It would be much more productive if the R&D guys invested their time in actually creating what they want straight up, as opposed to creating requirements documents, sitting down in meetings and helping the test engineer to burn through his/her learning curve in creating the characterization tool for R&D.
What NI is doing with the NI Virtual Bench is to remove the complexity behind PXI instrumentation selection and Software programming. It has packaged the most common instruments used by characterizations engineers into a single package so they don’t have to spend hours of frustration trying to come up with a configuration that works for them.
NI Virtual Bench is trying to do something similar on the Software side as well, in order to reduce the so call “time to success” for the R&D engineer. Time to success is defined as the time that an engineer or scientists starts to research a hardware-software solution until the time his/her problem or application is actually complete.
What I believe to be at the core of NI’s intention with the Virtual Bench is to go back to its simplicity roots. Its past roots of DAQ/GPIB plus LabVIEW solutions; where a new user could have success in just a few days, obviously depending on the application complexity. The intention here is to present the R&D engineer with a packaged solution that solves 80% of her problems with the out of the box thingamajig. Something that the engineer can use almost as is, with minimum learning curve.
If this approach will be successful or not for the characterization R&D engineers we will certainly have to wait and see. However, should it prove to be a home run, it will certainly help NI on the production test business also as the natural progression would be for the client organization to continue to use NI’s products downstream, once the new design needs to be production tested.
As usual, NI is launching not only a product, but a vertical play that attempts at creating synergy with its other more established vertical markets. I do believe however that the benchtop instrumentation vertical will also follow the general trend the entire test and measurement industry is; low cost. With the advent of the Arduino Compatible Compiler for LabVIEW, the up and coming Raspberri Pi Compatible Compiler for LabVIEW and the slew of low cost user defined instruments such as the Red Pitaya, the community will eventually start replacing even the new NI Virtual Bench with low cost hardware, powered by LabVIEW through the use of these compilers that allow LabVIEW code to be deployed to and to run embedded in Arduinos, Raspberry Pis, and other low cost hardware platforms.