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Virtual Instrumentation

Virtual Instrumentation



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Published by: api-3742317 on Oct 15, 2008
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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Is virtual instrumentation
an option or need?
By Ian Bell
Technical Marketing Manager
National Instruments Corp.

Never has the need for test been greater. As the pace of innova- tion and customer expectations have increased, so has the pres- sure to get new, differentiated products to market quickly.

In the consumer electronics market, for example, there is a drive to integrate greater func- tionality into ever smaller de- vices while lowering costs. The economic downturn of the past years has not reduced the need to innovate, but has added the restraint of fewer resources. Not only does the successful manufacturer have to test more functionality on a higher vol- ume of units in shorter time, but it also needs to build test systems faster, operate them with fewer staff and take up less space on the manufacturing f loor. All these conditions drive new requirements for valida- tion, verification and manufac- turing test. A test platform that can keep pace with this innova- tion is not optional\u2014it is essen- tial. The platform must include rapid test development tools

that are adaptable enough to be used throughout the product development f low.

The need to get products to volume quickly and manufac- ture them efficiently requires high-throughput test. To test the complex multifunction products that consumers de- mand requires precise, syn- chronized measurement capa- bilities. As you incorporate new applications to differentiate your products, your test system must quickly adapt to test the new features.

Virtual instrumentation uses mainstream computer technologies combined with flexible software and modular, high-performance hardware to create powerful, computer- based test solutions. Using this approach, engineers and scien- tists can capitalize on the ever- increasing performance of PCs and take advantage of the free- dom to define measurement and automation solutions that meet their specific needs.

Virtual instrumentation tools build on standard com- mercial technologies such as PC components and the Inter- net. As these commercial tech-

nologies rapidly evolve, they improve in performance while reducing costs to serve the mass market.

National Instruments\u2019 Lab- View graphical development software uses the latest Win- dows, Mac OS, Linux and other operating systems to deliver multithreading execution com- bined with graphical ease of use. NI measurement hardware takes advantage of the power of PCI and PXI computer buses to transfer data at high speeds into memory.

Virtual instrumentation incorporates three essential technologies:

\u2022 Intuitive software tools for
rapid test development;

\u2022 Fast, precise and modular I/O based on commercial technologies;

\u2022 A PC-based platform with inte- grated synchronization for high accuracy and throughput.

As automation has increas- ingly become a requirement in testing complex products ra- pidly, software has become an essential element in all test sys- tems\u2014from design verification through to highly-automated

manufacturing test. To quickly deliver test systems that can adapt to testing new function- ality requires an integrated set of test development tools. These tools include test man- agement, test development and I/O drivers.

The second essential tech- nology for test is modular I/O, including technologies such as modular instrumentation and data acquisition. Modular I/O uses commercial chip technolo- gies to create virtual instru- ments with high performance and low cost. The rapid deve- lopment of widely used com- mercial technologies such as ADCs, DACs, FPGAs and DSPs has resulted in the rapid growth of modular I/O functionality and performance. In many cases, the accuracy of virtual instrumentation exceeds that of traditional instruments.

PC-based test platform

Today, all modern test systems include a computer. The PC has become an essential integrating platform at the center of the test system and not just peripheral to it. The gigahertz processors, high-speed buses, wide avail- ability of software, constantly increasing performance and low price make the PC a suitable test platform. Consider the perfor- mance advances that the PC has undergone in the past 20 years. The only other element of test systems that has undergone a performance increase of this magnitude is perhaps the device under test itself.

By combining powerful, f lex- ible software with modular in- strumentation hardware, engi- neers can create customized in- struments that meet their appli- cation needs. The proprietary, fixed functionality inherent in traditional instruments is no longer a limiting factor in pro- viding robust test solutions. Us- ing virtual instrumentation, test engineers can define the exact characteristics for their auto- mated acquisition, analysis and reporting without worrying about the incompatibilities that may exist among different

Figure1: Whether acquiring a single channel over a short period of time or thousands of channels over many
days, virtual instrumentation uses the same platform of hardware and software to accomplish both tasks.

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