DR. JAMES TRUCHARD
President, CEO, and Co-Founder
National Instruments
Austin, TX
www.ni.com

The world of technology has moved to software — it started in the PC industry, but quickly manifested in the smartphone industry with operating systems like iOS and Android. We now see software making its mark in the test and measurement industry where it is revolutionizing how engineers and scientists solve grand challenges. But it wasn’t always this way. We have seen tremendous innovation in the test and measurement industry over the past four decades.

NI was founded in 1976 as a company providing an interface between computers and traditional instrumentation — GPIB — which gave us a unique view into both worlds and ultimately set the stage for a new vision of how instrumentation could be built. During our second decade, our goal was to do for test and measurement what the spreadsheet did for financial analysis. We worked to realize our vision of creating virtual instrumentation by combining PC-based processing and commercial off-the-shelf hardware. That’s a big reason why we created LabVIEW, our graphical programming language widely used in the engineering industry today.

In our next decade, we built instrumentation that integrated into larger test and measurement systems using software. In the fourth decade, we built an ecosystem consisting of hardware, software, and partners so we could diversify and offer incredible value through our platform, allowing us to span the spectrum from DC to millimeter-wave applications.

Over the course of 40 years, we found two forces critical in driving the shift from vacuum tubes to transistors, and now to software being the instrument: Moore’s Law and the flexibility of software. By driving down the size and cost of computing technologies, Moore’s Law brought tremendous performance gains to test and measurement for both processing power and analog-to-digital converters. This is evidenced by modern day computers that, although revolutionary, were rather low-performance when initially introduced. Today’s supercomputers are built on a combination of PC processors, and are much more powerful and sophisticated.

Software’s role in this evolution comes from its ability to create a continuum from one hardware generation to the next. Productivity would be stifled without it. Without software, any time a new processor releases, it would require a complete rework of the technology. For the past 40 years, we’ve strived to do the same thing in test and measurement. We can now replace high-performance, purpose-built ATE systems with our modular, platform-based systems because of our ability to scale upward in performance while maintaining software compatibility.

As the test and measurement industry continues to advance, we want to equip engineers with a platform and ecosystem that accelerates their productivity, innovation, and design so they can keep working to improve the world around them.

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NASA Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the March, 2016 issue of NASA Tech Briefs Magazine.

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