Smarter Technology Requires Smarter Test Systems

Rahman Jamal
Global Technology & Marketing Director
seat technology smart test systems ecosystems
Rahman Jamal looks at Living in a Smarter World: Smarter Test Systems on the Verge of Conquering the Market

“Technology is nothing. What’s important is that you have a faith in people, that they’re basically good and smart, and if you give them tools, they’ll do wonderful things with them.” I’ve always liked this quote by Steve Jobs which pretty much summarizes my attitude towards technology and my fundamental belief in providing smart people with the right tools to enable them to create smart solutions and devices.

We know smart devices are more and more finding their way into all aspects of our lives – in industry as well as in our private lives. What is more, all these devices are more and more connected to each other, we all know the terms Internet of Things, Internet of Everything, and Connected World. And all these smart devices are more complex than ever before, and all of them have to be tested.

Let us just look at a Nest thermostat for instance. Such a device does no longer consist of simply a temperature sensor, but it contains WiFi and Zigbee systems, a Lithium-ion battery and power management system, analog and digital outputs, a microprocessor and even more. In addition to that, such a thermostat is updated through software, roughly once a month.

So the fundamental question is: how are you going to test all these smart devices?

Well, basically there are two approaches to serving the test and measurement industry. The traditional approach assumes that the vendor is smarter than the customer, and ultimately knows what the customer needs, better than they do. We all know that this strategy has historically led to the rise of the so-called box instruments with a fixed personality, containing the functionality identified by the vendor. And for several decades of test and measurement, this strategy was exactly what the market needed and demanded. It simply made sense, because things were a lot simpler.

However, today, things are much more complex, as the example of Nest just showed us. And there are many more examples. Today, thousands of companies worldwide are building smart devices. Each of their challenges is unique, which means that also each of their test systems has to be unique. Vendors of fix-function box instruments cannot provide the service to implement every single customer requirement into their boxes – doing so would involve many more engineers than they could afford. In addition, this approach would be much too slow to respond to the quickly changing product requirements of nowadays.

If the vendor cannot fulfil the customer’s needs, the customer has to create all this on his own. This would involve trying linking multiple boxes together – boxes that actually were not designed to be used together. This would correspond to building your own cell phone from scratch – just imagine you had to do so assembling discrete components, jumper wires, a breadboard, etc. on your own. Frustration is inevitable.

NI has understood this challenge from day one. This is why we have always taken a different path from when the company was founded, taking the second approach which assumes that the customers know their system requirements better than the vendor.

This approach emphasizes interoperability as well as modular hardware and software that allows the users to automate their solutions as well as adapt them to the relevant needs. This means, the customer has full control of his system’s functionality and is no longer limited by a vendor’s innovation. The vendor is simply the provider of the tools that enable system design.

A smarter test system centers around an approach based on modular hardware and flexible software and was specifically designed for automated test from the beginning. However, the crux of this approach is not just the modular hardware and flexible software. The real advantage arises from a dynamic and ever-growing ecosystem of developers, partners, integrators, and IP (intellectual property) – not limited by the vendor’s innovation. Take Apple as an example: Apple’s platform is based on hardware and software (apps) that changes the hardware’s personality. The apps turn the iPhone into a phone, radio, camera, navigation system or even a guitar tuner. The ecosystem of apps surrounding its smartphones and tablets enriches the product portfolio and allows the user to customize his device. Other examples of companies supporting an open, vibrant ecosystem are Android, Coursera, Yelp – and NI.

National Instruments realized this already forty years ago: each vendor has an internal platform enabling efficiency gains or the use of common components across departments. But this platform does not necessarily have to be locked away from the customer. Our open platform based on modular hardware and flexible software is surrounded by an ever-growing and dynamic ecosystem, a huge support network for engineers developing smart test systems. They can turn to more than one thousand Alliance Partners and systems integrators that help them complete their solution based on the NI platform. In addition, there are hundreds of toolkits that have been created by the NI community and are downloadable from the NI website. If the customer needs consultation or advice, numerous NI field and support engineers are ready to help. But what is more: there are currently 300,000 users collaborating in the NI community, being more than willing to share code as well as insight through our online forums and user groups. If you decide to leverage the NI platform to create your solution, you most likely do not have to start from scratch.

The power of our platform and ecosystem can be clearly seen in the test and measurement industry today. Even some of the most traditional vendors following the “vendor knows best” approach and once claiming that they would never acknowledge an open modular platform such as PXI as legitimate have changed their minds and jumped on the bandwagon, now building products based on PXI, the open standard introduced by NI in 1997. However, these vendors are still not taking a platform-based approach, nor do they provide the relevant ecosystem. Still, all of their systems are locked up and not accessible by the customer. If the customer wanted to get additional functionality into this vendor’s box instrument, he would have to request it. If he is lucky and an important customer, he might get it implemented. But if not, he will be left on his own.

With the proliferation of ever smarter devices, customers have two choices today: they can either wait and hope their vendor will deliver a provisional solution which cannot be changed and adapted to future requirements, or turn to a smarter option. A platform-based approach of modular hardware and open, flexible software that is supported by an ever-expanding ecosystem lets them adapt their solution to their specific needs. After all, it is the customer who knows what his system needs are – better than any vendor ever could. 

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