National Instruments: [NASDAQ: NATI]-: Realizing Vision-enabled Automation

National Instruments: [NASDAQ: NATI]-: Realizing Vision-enabled Automation

CIO VendorDr. James Truchard President, CEO & Co- founder It was the first day of National Instruments’ [NASDAQ: NATI] 21st annual NI Week, and despite the torrid heat, a throng of enthusiasts, and executives inundated the convention center at Texas to catch glimpses of the suave and tech savvy, opening keynote addresser, Dr. James Truchard. Amid a huge fan following, Dr. Truchard, President, CEO, and Co-founder, National Instruments began with an overture, “Data has been communicated over the years.” He then recounted the saga about how the human race on an impulse for communication had invented language, conversations, written word, printed word, and the much recent instant internet messengers.

Not just with humans, but the value of machine-generated data within an industrial setting multiplies manifold when there is scope for communication, according to Truchard. Historically, the shop floor operations would have a testing inspector whose job is to flash a red or green light to indicate an instance of proper or malfunctioning process. This Boolean data, acquired and audited by humans was then conveyed to appropriate digital systems and a huge gap prevailed between the human-acquired data and other automated machinery. However, this is not the case today; as the advent of Industry 4.0 is paving a way for seamless machine-machine communications. This industrial revolution in question has brought in a new breed of technology paraphernalia such as the Internet of Things (IoT), and big ‘analog’ data, which has augmented a new meaning to data communication. Along the course of this value chain, sprang the birth of machine vision with the underpinning support of IoT, to offer a true sense of industrial automation.

Eliminating Human Intervention, Reducing Errors

Founded in 1976, National Instruments took off with a vision to constantly evolve the power of machine vision in automating a factory. And ever since, the company has been raising the bar of factory automation through a broad portfolio of machine vision hardware and software that eliminates human intervention off the equation. Of particular concern, “The IoT and big ‘analog’ data will play a major role in industry 4.0,” Truchard notes. After working with big ‘analog’ data for over three decades to help scientists and engineers in acquiring in-factory data and putting it to better use, National Instruments is poised at the helm of elevating the stature of industries through a connected environment.

Truchard believes that in the fourth generation, which has welcomed cyber physical systems and smart interconnected machinery into the picture, machine vision systems will be stamping its authority.

The company’s flagship product, LabVIEW (Laboratory Virtual Instrument Engineering Workbench) offers the much-needed flexibility to address machine vision needs during research, test and measurement, and industrial automated vision applications. Originally developed for the Macintosh machine, LabVIEW currently supports Microsoft Windows, various flavors of Linux, and Mac OS X. The widely adopted solution serves as a development environment for data acquisition, instrument control, and large-scale industrial automation. The LabVIEW software can be used in conjunction with a whole slew of purpose-driven machine vision equipments (smart cameras, frame grabbers) and applications—such as “NI Vision Development” and “NI Vision Builder”.

Shop Floor Automation Made Easy

The “NI Vision Development” module aids factories with the initial stages of deploying machine vision systems. It envelopes the functions that help obtain images from a multitude of vision hardware including cameras and queues them for further processing and data mining. Easy integration options are embedded in the module with the help of which the tools and functions communicate with external PLCs, network protocols, and automation devices including digital I/Os, and TCP/IP. The underlying algorithm behind “NI Vision Development” finds practical use in a wide range of applications, from performing optical character recognition on pharmaceutical packaging to examining solar panels for cracks.

National Instruments has developed the “NI Vision Builder” module, which serves the most vital purpose of setting up and configuring an automated inspection system in the factory. The desktop tool provides an easy way to configure, benchmark, and deploy a customized machine vision system, with many features, such as pattern matching, code reading, presence detection, precision alignment, and classification. With an interactive graphically represented, menu-driven development environment, the complexities of programming are greatly diminished, which simplifies the process of development and maintenance, allowing no compromises on performance or range of functionality.

National Instruments’ brochure covers the area of hardware with an elaborate list of machine vision equipments such as smart cameras that are categorically sorted into high performance and low cost. These gadgets are waterproof and dustproof and they range from monochrome (sufficing the requirement in most cases) to color and VGA (Video Graphics Adapter) to SXGA (Super Extended Graphics Array), complete with real-time firmware, and connectors. On the other hand, frame grabber equipments are platform-agnostic devices that acquire ‘frames’ or digital still images from videos.

The IoT and big ‘analog’ data will play a major role in industry 4.0

National Instruments in Action

For instance, a developer who has to configure the machine vision system for scrutinizing the assembly line of a dominos manufacturing plant will start with instructing the software to import images from the various cameras, vision capture, and frame grabbers. For the prototype, a sample image is acquired and converted to a monochrome image, and then the algorithms identify distinct patterns from the image—in this case, the dots on the face of the domino. Through further stages of enhancement, a developer is able to eliminate false positives in the image, such as a harmless speck of color/contrast variation. What’s more, the software can also display other attributes, such as the count of dots in a dynamic fashion.

"The breadth of our product portfolio helps us serve a diversity of customers"

From a closer look, National Instruments has over a thousand happy customer stories, spread across a broad horizon of industry factions including aerospace, defense, construction, food and beverage, telecommunication, and energy. “The breadth of our product portfolio helps us serve a diversity of customers,” extols Truchard. “And this diversity is a key factor in our long track record of growth and profitability.” On one occasion, Utah based FireFly Equipment—an automated turf harvester company—faced a crisis of dealing with performance and reliability issues while palletizing turf in a variety of farming conditions. To counter these challenges and also to reduce excess spend, National Instruments came onboard with their LabVIEW software that was used in combination with the CompactRIO hardware. They had designed ProSlab 155, a smart machine that harvested turf 20 percent faster, and used half the fuel than other turf harvesting machines on the market. On the other hand, commercial farmers reaped an additional benefit of higher revenue and major cost savings.

Treading the IoT Waters with Machine Vision

With the rest of the world already knee-deep in the IoT waters, the core industrial family is embracing their own tailored version, the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), a promising area that is under exploration. Coupled with the expanding scope for IIoT, big ‘analog’ data and analytics, machine vision is all set to impact its solid footprint in Industry 4.0 and its successive counterparts. Under Truchard's helmsmanship, National Instruments has been on a remarkable quest to reserve its seat at the vantage of the revolution. Setting a long-term vision, known as the 100 year plan, the company is resolute on revamping the industrial world by providing tools that accelerate productivity, innovation, and discovery.