About Virtual Instrumentation

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With more than 6 million new measurement channels sold last year, National Instruments is a worldwide leader in virtual instrumentation. Engineers have used virtual instrumentation for more than 25 years to bring the power of flexible software and PC technology to test, control, and design applications making accurate analog and digital measurements from DC to 2.7 GHz. This document provides an excellent introduction to virtual instrumentation as well as additional resources for continued research.

1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. What is virtual instrumentation? Why is virtual instrumentation necessary? Why has virtual instrumentation been so successful? What makes National Instruments a leader in virtual instrumentation? What makes National Instruments different from other virtual instrumentation companies? Who uses National Instruments virtual instrumentation? Additional Virtual Instrumentation Resources

What is virtual instrumentation?
With virtual instrumentation, software based on user requirements defines general-purpose measurement and control hardware functionality. Virtual instrumentation combines mainstream commercial technologies, such as the PC, with flexible software and a wide variety of measurement and control hardware, so engineers and scientists can create user-defined systems that meet their exact application needs. With virtual instrumentation, engineers and scientists reduce development time, design higher quality products, and lower their design costs.

Figure 1. Virtual instrumentation combines productive software, modular I/O, and scalable platforms. National Instruments introduced virtual instrumentation more than 25 years ago, changing the way engineers and scientists measure and automate the world around them. In 2004, National Instruments sold more than 6 million channels of virtual instrumentation in 90 countries. Today, virtual instrumentation has reached mainstream acceptance and is used in thousands of applications around the world in industries from automotive, to consumer electronics, to oil and gas.

Why is virtual instrumentation necessary?
Virtual instrumentation is necessary because it delivers instrumentation with the rapid adaptability required for today’s concept, product, and process design, development, and delivery. Only with virtual instrumentation can engineers and scientists create the user-defined instruments required to keep up with the world’s demands. To meet the ever-increasing demand to innovate and deliver ideas and products faster, scientists and engineers are turning to advanced electronics, processors, and software. Consider a modern cell phone. Most contain the latest features of the last generation, including audio, a phone book, and text messaging capabilities. New versions include a camera, MP3 player, and Bluetooth networking and Internet browsing. The increased functionality of advanced electronics increased functionality is possible because devices have become more software centric. Engineers and scientists can add new functions to the device without changing the hardware, resulting in improved concepts and products without costly hardware redevelopment. This extends product life and usefulness and reduces product delivery times. Engineers and scientists can improve functionality through software instead of developing further specific electronics to do a particular job. However, this increase in functionality comes with a price. Upgraded functionality introduces the possibility of unforeseen interaction or error. So, just as device-level software helps rapidly develop and extend functionality, design and test instrumentation also must adapt to verify the improvements. The only way to meet these demands is to use test and control architectures that are also software

centric. Because virtual instrumentation uses highly productive software, modular I/O, and commercial platforms, it is uniquely positioned to keep pace with the required new idea and product development rate. National Instruments LabVIEW, a premier virtual instrumentation graphical development environment, uses symbolic or graphical representations to speed up development. The software symbolically represents functions. Consolidating functions within rapidly deployed graphical blocks further speeds development. Another virtual instrumentation component is modular I/O, designed to be rapidly combined in any order or quantity to ensure that virtual instrumentation can both monitor and control any development aspect. Using well-designed software drivers for modular I/O, engineers and scientists quickly can access functions during concurrent operation. The third virtual instrumentation element – using commercial platforms, often enhanced with accurate synchronization – ensures that virtual instrumentation takes advantage of the very latest computer capabilities and data transfer technologies. This element delivers virtual instrumentation on a long-term technology base that scales with the high investments made in processors, buses, and more. In summary, as innovation mandates software use of to accelerate new concept and product development, it also requires instrumentation to rapidly adapt to new functionality. Because virtual instrumentation applies software, modular I/O, and commercial platforms, it delivers instrumentation capabilities uniquely qualified to keep pace with today’s concept and product development.

Why has virtual instrumentation been so successful?
Virtual instrumentation achieved mainstream adoption by providing a new model for building measurement and automation systems. Keys to its success include rapid PC advancement; explosive low-cost, high-performance data converter (semiconductor) development; and system design software emergence. These factors make virtual instrumentation systems accessible to a very broad base of users. PC performance, in particular, has increased more than 10,000X over the past 20 years. Virtual instruments takes advantage of this PC performance increase by analyzing measurements and solving new application challenges with each new-generation PC processor, hard drive, display, and I/O bus. These rapid advancements, combined with the general trend that technical and computer literacy starts early in school, contribute to successful computer-based virtual instrumentation adoption.

Figure 2. A 10,000x performance increase for PCs helps drive virtual instrumentation system performance. Another virtual instrumentation driver is the proliferation of high-performance, low-cost analog-to-digital (ADC) and digital-to-analog (DAC) converters. Applications such as wireless communication and high-definition video impact these technologies relentlessly. While traditional proprietary converter technology tends to move slowly, commercial semiconductor technologies tend to follow Moore’s law – doubling performance every 18 months. Virtual instrumentation hardware uses these widely available semiconductors to deliver high-performance measurement front ends. Finally, system design software that provides an intuitive interface for designing custom instrumentation systems furthers virtual instrumentation. LabVIEW is an example of such software. The LabVIEW graphical development environment offers the performance and flexibility of a programming language, as well as high-level functionality and configuration utilities designed specifically for measurement and automation applications.

Figure 3. Sample Code Developed in the LabVIEW Graphical Development Environment.

What makes National Instruments a leader in virtual instrumentation?
In one word, the answer is software. Software that enables engineers and scientists to create userdefined instruments.

At the heart of any virtual instrument is flexible software, and National Instruments invented one of the world’s best virtual instrumentation software platforms – LabVIEW. LabVIEW is a powerful graphical development environment for signal acquisition, measurement analysis, and data presentation, giving the flexibility of a programming language without the complexity of traditional development tools. Since 1986, when National Instruments introduced LabVIEW for the Macintosh, it has quickly and consistently attracted engineers and scientists looking for a productive, powerful programming language to use in test, control and design applications. Today, LabVIEW is the preferred graphical development environment for thousands of engineers and scientists. For engineers who prefer text-based programming, National Instruments also offers LabWindows/CVI, an application development environment for ANSI C, as well as tools for virtual instrument development using Visual Studio .NET, Measurement Studio.

Figure 4. LabVIEW is a leader in application software used in PC-based data acquisition and instrument control. While software is the heart of every virtual instrument, almost every virtual instrument requires measurement hardware to accurately acquire the measurement. Independent of the programming environment chosen, virtual instrumentation software must provide excellent integration with system measurement hardware. National Instruments software, including LabVIEW, offers open connectivity to tens of thousands of sensors, cameras, actuators, cameras, traditional instruments and plug-in devices (USB, PCI, etc.) from thousands of third-party hardware vendors. In 2004, National Instruments measurement hardware provided customers with more than 6,000,000 virtual instrumentation measurement channels. From low-cost USB data acquisition, to image acquisition and process control vision systems, to RF measurements at 2.7 GHz, to GPIB bus communication, National Instruments has shown more than 25,000 companies that it offers the measurement hardware and scalable hardware platforms required to complete virtual instruments.

What makes National Instruments different from other virtual instrumentation companies?

National Instruments has been a virtual instrumentation leader for more than 25 years. This leadership has grown and been sustained through constant and consistent innovation. Because National Instruments invented and innovated the premier virtual instrumentation graphical development environment, LabVIEW, it attracts thousands of engineers and scientists building virtual instruments. By understanding customer project development needs, National Instruments has consistently delivered significant software innovations, including Express technology, the LabVIEW Real-Time Module and LabVIEW PDA Module, and SignalExpress: 1. Express technology National Instruments created Express technology for LabVIEW, LabWindow/CVI, and Measurement Studio in 2003 to reduce code complexity while preserving power and functionality. Today, more than 50 percent of data acquisition customers use DAQ Assistant to simplify data acquisition tasks. 2. The LabVIEW Real-Time Module and LabVIEW PDA Modules National Instruments extended LabVIEW for deterministic execution using the LabVIEW RealTime Module and developed matching hardware platforms to make embedded application deployment a reality. The LabVIEW PDA Module extended virtual instrumentation and the LabVIEW platform to handheld devices. 3. NI SignalExpress Design and test engineers asked National Instruments for virtual instrumentation software that interactively measures and analyzes data. In response, National Instruments created SignalExpress – a drag-and-drop, no-programming-required environment ideal for exploratory measurements. In addition to the strong software differentiator, National Instruments offers the most broad and innovative I/O selection among virtual instrumentation companies. To help engineers and scientists meet accelerating demands, National Instruments constantly releases products to further extend breadth. A few recent examples of NI hardware innovation include USB DAQ devices, M Series DAQ devices, and National Instruments CompactRIO: 1. USB DAQ Devices In a recent survey, 70 percent of National Instruments data acquisition (DAQ) customers said they plan to purchase multifunction USB DAQ in the near future. That month, National Instruments released the USB-6008, setting a new low price point for multifunction DAQ at $145 (US). 2. M Series DAQ Devices National Instruments helped establish leadership in plug-in data acquisition when it released the M Series DAQ products in late 2004. The first 18-bit PCI devices, first PCI data acquisition devices with six DMA channels for maximum throughput, and a patent-pending device calibration scheme are just a few of the features that set these products apart. 3. CompactRIO Reconfigurable Control and I/O One of the most innovative additions to National Instruments I/O products is CompactRIO. With an FPGA chip at the heart of this I/O platform, engineers can create custom hardware and customize it repeatedly using LabVIEW FPGA.

Who uses National Instruments virtual instrumentation?
National Instruments customers include engineers, scientists, and technical professionals in a wide range of industries. From testing DVD recorders to researching advanced medicines, they use National Instruments software and hardware to develop user-defined instruments and deliver a diverse set of products and services, faster and at a lower cost. Here are a few examples of how customers use National Instruments virtual instrumentation products: 1. AP Racing – Building Formula 1 Caliper and Brake Test Dynamometers For more than 30 years, AP Racing has been a world leader in brake caliper and race clutch technology and manufacturing. AP Racing concluded that a unique new dynamometer would be a distinct advantage, and virtual instrumentation using National Instruments DAQ devices and LabVIEW provided the flexibility it needed to innovate in the marketplace. 2. Lexmark – Ink Cartridge Electrical Test Ed Coleman, with Lexmark International, Inc., said, “As we continue to adapt our test systems to meet our latest requirements with minimal development time with the use of PC-based modular instruments and industry-standard software. Upgrading to the NI 5122, NI 6552, and LabVIEW 7 Express, we increased the quality of our products and production yields while increasing our test performance with minimal development expense.” 3. Texas Instruments – RF and Wireless Component Characterization With close to $4 billion in revenue, Texas Instruments (TI) is one of the leading wireless IC providers. To streamline its characterization process, TI created test development, management, and automation software powered by NI TestStand and LabVIEW. Using NI products, it expanded its business without sacrificing quality and resources. 4. Drivven – Motorcycle Engine Control Unit (ECU) Prototype In past projects, Drivven spent at least two man-years and $500,000US to develop ECU prototyping systems from custom hardware. For this project, the equipment costs (including the motorcycle and CompactRIO) totaled $15,000US, and development time took approximately three man-months. FPGA-based reconfigurable hardware, CompactRIO, and the LabVIEW Real-Time Module delivered reliability and precise timing resources, and the system was rugged enough to withstand the high-temperature and high-vibration operating environment. To learn more about these customer solutions and read hundreds more, visit ni.com/success.

Additional Virtual Instrumentation Resources
To learn more about virtual instrumentation, use the following resources:
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