National Instruments on Building an Industrial IoT Toolkit

NI, a provider of automated test equipment and virtual instrumentation software used in wireless sensor networks, is now helping its customers develop industrial Internet of Things solutions for applications such as factory automation and preventative maintenance.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
Feb 18, 2015

Based in Austin, Texas, National Instruments (NI) has a long history of creating electronic testing and embedded control solutions designed to make data-collection and wireless-sensor systems operate accurately and efficiently. Today, the company has $1.2 billion in annual revenue and a wide-ranging customer base (including Airbus) that is implementing industrial IoT solutions. The firm also encourages its own employees to innovate and experiment: Brad Hughes, a software engineer at National Instruments, led a team that won an Intel-sponsored hackathon last fall, for developing an Internet-linked food scale. To learn about the company's approach and how the IoT is changing the modern factory, IOT Journal spoke with Jamie Smith, the firm's director of embedded systems product marketing.

IOT Journal: Can you explain the basic concept of the industrial Internet of Things and how it differs from legacy industrial systems?

Jamie Smith
Jamie Smith: The concepts of the IoT are similar between the consumer IoT, where we see products such as Fitbit, smartphones and even smart cars, and the industrial IoT or IIoT—which is also called, simply, the Industrial Internet. Both are characterized by dispersed, sensor-based devices that communicate to a central hub. But the technology requirements for consumer IoT and the IIoT are different.

Traditionally, an industrial system worked by using one central controller, or brain, which communicated out to sensors or I/O [input/output] devices. Now, those sensors are getting smarter and more autonomous. Also, those smart [sensor and controller] systems are increasingly out at the edge [of the industrial architecture]. They're not just doing simple things but taking on a broader range of responsibilities to make decisions, improve insights of factory workers, and doing overall better productivity.

Another key to the IIoT is the use of field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs), which are chips that can be programmed by the end user—as opposed to chips used in, say, personal computers, which come with an installed operating system or application.

In a traditional industrial system, sensor data comes in through a data bus, and that data bus would control an actuator. That round trip takes 100 milliseconds, or as little as 10 milliseconds. But using an FPGA, we can have that round trip down to the microsecond timeframe.

Traditionally, chips were designed in software, and prototypes were made in FPGAs. They were just a mechanism to get to what you were making. Now, FPGAs are smaller, more power-efficient and integrate more elements than just gates [which control flow of electrical current in a chip], memory and interconnects. They also have digital signal processors so now you can create custom reprogrammable chips that do whatever you need them to do. So you can create functionality in hardware without needing an operating system and without software bugs or conflicts.

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