18 Mar 2018

Test Faster with Simpler Software Interoperability

Michael Keane, Product Manager at National Instruments, looks at the advantages of the new LabVIEW NXG in providing more effective workflows.

Software is becoming even more vital for test and manufacturing engineers to accomplish fast and effective testing. In a 2015 survey by Aspencore (previously UBM), 50% of engineers cited usability/interface as the most important trait of their test equipment that needed an upgrade.

Vendors of test and measurement instruments have developed multiple pieces of software to improve efficiency, but this has left engineers with a wide range of different software environments that do not integrate with each other. The result is that engineers are struggling to integrate multiple software tools as they go through the process of creating, deploying and maintaining a test system. To avoid the cost of integration, such as the time wasted on interoperability between software, it is important that your tools are open and simple to incorporate into your system. This leaves you with more time to focus on developing new products and driving business forward.

To ensure you hit the increasingly short deadlines, software needs to make repetitive tasks faster to perform and ensure code reuse, all whilst giving control of the details as and when engineers want them, so they can create specific, customised tests. One software environment alone cannot perfectly provide all of this for the entire test cycle. By embracing a platform of software that is designed to interoperate you can satisfy all the requirements in the simplest way.

For over 40 years, test and manufacturing engineers have increased productivity using NI’s open platform centered on software, that is designed so that engineers can benefit from modular hardware and an extensive ecosystem. Engineers gain more flexibility in their test system and realise their ideas faster through adjusting hardware within the software environment itself.

NI is widening its software portfolio, with the latest version of LabVIEW NXG and the newly-released SystemLinkTM, to make it significantly quicker and more efficient to develop test systems. Whilst other vendors are implementing software-designed instrumentation that NI initiated, it has resulted in more engineers straining to integrate many disparate software tools. NI is the only vendor with a software platform capable of scaling from an I/O pin on an FPGA to the remote management of a test system which is modernising the workflow for developing a test system.

NI software tools interoperate throughout the entire workflow

Figure 1. NI software tools interoperate throughout the entire workflow of building, deploying, and maintaining a test system.

Designing and Procuring Your Test System

In a world of tight release schedules and demanding project timelines, you must resourcefully tackle the initial design phase for a new test system in a manner that sets your team up for future success. The list of hardware decisions for a new project goes on and on—instrumentation, cables, connectors, switch topology, mass interconnects, rack layout, power budgets and thermal profiling, and so on. After hardware decisions have all been finalized to ensure measurement quality, the last thing you need is for software to end up being the bottleneck to your productivity. To help simplify initial system setup, NI Factory Installation Services install selected software environments and necessary hardware drivers onto new controllers. This way, you can spend your time thinking about your test requirements rather than installing drivers.

Configuring and Validating Your Setup

Engineering setups often involve instruments from multiple vendors with discrete software capabilities. Paging through user manuals for information on submenu configurations and scouring the web for up-to-date versions of device drivers can get exhausting, especially if the experiences between vendors are inconsistent.

Applications developed in software are tightly coupled with their hardware setups, so users deserve a cohesive management solution that simplifies this fundamental relationship. Through the latest version of LabVIEW NXG, NI is introducing a new graphical canvas for the visual configuration of physical systems called SystemDesigner, which brings hardware configuration, diagnostics, and system documentation into the LabVIEW NXG environment.

This maximizes your development productivity with the ability to manage your hardware alongside software development in one environment from start to finish. If a particular NI or third-party driver is not installed, SystemDesigner guides you to install the necessary driver through NI Package Manager, a new interface built on industry-standard package formats.

LabVIEW NXG

Figure 2. LabVIEW NXG enables hardware management and system documentation alongside software development.

Having conquered the initial setup, your next task is even less straightforward—validate that your product meets all its design requirements. Throughout the test development process, it is essential to have quick access to interactive measurements like a DMM reading or oscilloscope display for initial testing and debugging of signal connections and verification of measurement accuracy.

From SystemDesigner, you can launch soft front panels for NI modular instruments to interactively monitor and control hardware. Certain instruments also leverage the direct PC connection to load and store waveforms or device-specific configurations for more convenient debugging. However, to minimize human error, ensure consistency, and ultimately accelerate time to market, automating a significant portion of the validation process is necessary.

Automating Your Instruments

When validating initial circuits boards for a design, chances are high that certain tests will need to be run repeatedly. Performing the same test by hand several times is tedious and, even more importantly from a business standpoint, inefficient. If an R&D group’s fundamental goal is to fully validate a design and send it to the manufacturing team quickly, the team’s precious time should be mainly spent focusing on requirements and engineering design tweaks rather than wasting time on logistical tasks that can be automated instead.

Once this mindset has been adopted, the main barrier is the tests’ creation, given that programming experience among a team of hardware and test engineers can vary widely. The key here is to apply domain expertise without feeling burdened by the semantics and programming constructs of your choice of software.

LabVIEW NXG provides a graphical approach to programming and lets you program how you think, connecting functional blocks to build the logic of the application. In addition, user interface (UI) design is streamlined through a drag-and-drop approach that helps you intuitively create professional UIs for your test code. The latest version of LabVIEW NXG further extends these capabilities from the desktop to the web, so even if you have no web programming experience, you can design and deploy web-based UIs that can run test code in any modern web browser without plugins or installers. This new feature through the LabVIEW NXG Web Module lets you monitor and control tests remotely across various devices and operating systems and share information with colleagues, which is particularly useful for long-running tests.

LabVIEW NXG

Figure 3. The LabVIEW NXG Web Module lets you design and deploy web-based UIs that can run test code in any modern web browser without plugins or installers.

Scaling to Production Test

When a product moves from R&D validation to final manufacturing test, it is crucial to keep device test time low so that total unit throughput is maximised. Instrumentation reuse between design validation and production reduces measurement correlation efforts between these two phases and adds efficiency to the software scaling as well. Independently running the same tests from the device validation phase in the same manner cannot meet manufacturing expectations; the test approach must scale to meet throughput demands.

While much of the same code can and should be repurposed, an abstracted test management tool that sits at the top of the software stack is necessary to combine all relevant, customised tests into a unified test sequence and more efficiently test a device, or possibly several devices simultaneously, against its specification limits. Architecting a test executive like this from scratch is extraordinarily cumbersome, whereas a commercial solution saves development effort and further improves time to market.

TestStand is a ready-to-run test management environment and framework that simplifies the design of your production test system. TestStand can call code modules written in almost any programming language, allowing your group to reuse tests written in G in both LabVIEW NXG and LabVIEW 2017 as well as several others like C, C#, and Python. The environment abstracts the development of crucial production test functions like reporting, database logging, and parallel execution, while still allowing for low-level customisation when needed.

By following a modular software architecture that decouples the test code modules (which are often specific to the device being tested) from the test execution system (which is common to all the different devices being tested), you have a scalable and flexible architecture that is less expensive to develop, support, and maintain in the long term. For instance, when characterisation and production test software groups at Motorola standardised on a single modular test application based on TestStand and LabVIEW, they reduced their combined annual maintenance and new product development costs by more than half.

LabVIEW TestStand

Figure 4. TestStand addresses cost and efficiency concerns to improve total throughput of a test system.

Deploying and Maintaining Your Testers

Most large test systems are not architected in isolation; they represent solutions for multiple test sites or for an entire production floor. After the tests are fully developed, manually deploying the test sequences with all their necessary dependencies can be logistically challenging. Imagine finally finishing a manual deployment installation on 20 testers, only to find out soon after that you must redeploy a new updated test sequence with one small modification to all 20 again. Now imagine that the number of testers is 1,000.

TestStand simplifies this process using its built-in deployment utility, which deploys the test sequence alongside its code modules and required run-time drivers. You can also use your favorite development environment to create custom operator interfaces (OIs) to deploy with a test sequence. By implementing user credentials, TestStand feature access extends from low-level execution details for software architects all the way up to an operator clicking a single Run button on a deployed test station’s custom OI and automatically saving pass/fail results to disk.

For large, distributed systems, a new NI software product called SystemLink helps coordinate mass software deployments, manage driver versions across targets, and monitor system diagnostics. Through a networked connection, a central server node securely manages distributed endpoints and simplifies mass package distribution of both NI and third-party software to target systems, significantly reducing the administrative burden and logistics costs associated with systems management functions.

National Instruments SystemLink

Figure 5. SystemLink helps manage distributed systems through a central web application.

Software Is the Key

Every company’s product development cycle will have its niche quirks. Many will repeat the product validation phase many times to reach an inflection point that warrants production, perhaps being forced to revisit design and configuration along the way. Meanwhile, some startups may never reach full-scale deployment of production testers based on product forecast alone.

After all, if every company’s development cycle was identical and 100 percent successful every time, how would the market sustain a dynamic sense of competition? Electronics designers and manufacturers must adopt a platform of tools that enables healthy course correction when a product suddenly adds a feature or raises a spec to stay competitive. While we all of course will try to be as proactive as we can early in the product development cycle, reality demands that we remain nimble. As engineers, we have already signed up for this challenge, and we cannot let our tools become our bottleneck.

With LabVIEW NXG, TestStand and SystemLink, NI software is available during the process of creating, deploying and maintaining your test system. Whilst each separate piece of software contains its own innovative advances, the ensemble embodies NI’s dedication to developing its software. Each software tool is unique yet is fundamentally designed for interoperability which places NI’s platform above the rest as other vendors have only recently realised how vital software is. Test smarter and faster with software designed for simpler integration.

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About the author

Michael Keane is a Product Marketing Engineer at National Instruments. As a product marketing engineer, Michael manages outbound marketing activities for automated test hardware and software. Between PXI modular instruments and NI’s software platform, he helps with customer education regarding automated test best practices across several industries. Keane holds a bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering from Duke University.

National Instruments, NI (ni.com) empowers engineers and scientists with a software-centric platform that incorporates modular hardware and an expansive ecosystem. This proven approach puts users firmly in control of defining what they need to accelerate their system design within test, measurement and control. NI’s solution helps build high-performance systems that exceed requirements, quickly adapt to change and ultimately improve the world.

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