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The future of virtual instrumentation

Some 17 years have passed since the concept of virtual instrumentation was pioneered, changing the way engineers and scientists measure and automate the world around them. Today, virtual instrumentation is coming of age, with engineers and scientists using 'virtual instruments' in hundreds of thousand of applications around the world, resulting in shorter lead times, higher-quality products, and lower costs.

The building blocks of virtual instrumentation include powerfully productive software, modular measurement hardware, and commercial technologies such as the personal computer and the internet. With virtual instrumentation, engineers define the measurements in a test or control application, using intuitive software and general-purpose measurement hardware that spans a wide range of frequencies and resolutions. These tools immediately deliver the productivity, performance, and cost-saving benefits of rapidly advancing computer technologies to engineers in hundreds of industries.

Simplifying the development process
Virtual instrumentation has led to a simpler way of looking at measurement systems. Instead of using several stand-alone instruments for multiple measurement types and performing rudimentary analysis by hand, engineers now can quickly and cost-effectively create a system equipped with analysis software and a single measurement device that has the capabilities of a multitude of instruments.

Powerful off-the-shelf software, such as our own company's LabVIEW, automates the entire process, delivering an easy way to acquire, analyse, and present data from a personal computer without sacrificing performance or functionality. The software integrates tightly with hardware, making it easy to automate measurements and control, while taking advantage of the personal computer for processing, display, and networking capabilities.

The expectations of performance and flexibility in measurement and control applications continue to rise in the industry, growing the importance of software design. By investing in intuitive engineering software tools that run at best possible performance, companies can dramatically reduce development time and increase individual productivity, giving themselves a powerful weapon to wield in competitive situations.

Preparing investments for the future
Measurement systems have historically been 'islands of automation', in which you design a system to meet the needs of a specific application. With virtual instrumentation, modular hardware components and open engineering software make it easy to adapt a single system to a variety of measurement requirements.

To meet the changing needs of your testing system, open platforms such as PXI (PCI eXtensions for Instrumentation) make it simple to integrate measurement devices from different vendors into a single system that is easy to modify or expand, as new technologies emerge or your application needs change. With a PXI system, you can quickly integrate common measurements such as machine vision, motion control, and data acquisition to create multifunction systems without spending valuable engineering hours making the hardware work together. The open PXI platform combines industry-standard technologies, such as CompactPCI and Windows operating systems, with built-in triggering to provide a rugged, more deterministic system than desktop PCs.

Beyond the PC
The internet has ushered in a new age of data sharing, and has spurred new networking and remote computing capabilities of virtual instrumentation that was simply not possible with their stand-alone propriety counterparts. Virtual instrumentation takes advantage of the internet, so you can easily publish data to the web direct from the measurement control device, and read data on a handheld personal digital assistant, or even on a cellular phone.

This level of connectivity will progress even further, bringing a new meaning to modularity. With advances in internet and wireless technologies, engineers will be able to reuse modular components, and also more easily share their knowledge and experiences across global enterprises - consolidating engineering efforts across every stage of development.

The wave of commercial technology advances will continue. The performance advances will be easier to implement, saving valuable development time and integration time while reducing costs over traditional instrumentation solutions. No one can predict exactly where the future will take virtual instrumentation, but one thing is clear - the PC and its related technologies will be at the centre, and you will be more successful as a result.

James Truchard is President and CEO of National Instruments

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