National Instruments not only provides technology for IoT applications but also uses IOT extensively itself. And, within NI, Brett Burger played an instrumental role in launching their Industrial IoT Lab, and champions initiatives to promote adoption of NI technology in industrial applications. Hence, he was the perfect candidate for Rahul Chopra to speak to and figure out NI’s perspective on Industrial IoT…
Q. How does NI see IoT now? I remember–two or three years back, NI was promoting the term cyber-physical systems instead of IOT, is that still happening?
I would say cyber-physical systems still have a place in industrial technology. Industry 4.0 discusses cyber-physical systems as does the academic space and NI has very strong ties to lab research in the academic world. NI sees IoT as a collection of technologies – driven by the megatrend of connecting people and devices – that when properly integrated into a platform, can help engineers solve the challenges they are facing as they design the next generation of autonomous vehicles, fuel-efficient aircraft, and consumer connected devices. What we were doing is connecting engineering assets with IT networks to provide the right data to the right people in time to make effective business decisions.
Q. I thought cyber-physical was just a play of words. Like ‘physical’ referred to a ‘thing’, ‘cyber’ stood for ‘Internet’–so Internet of Things was renamed as cyber-physical systems. But it seems—there’s more to it?
A. In my interpretation, these are different concepts. A cyber-physical system, is a combination of communication, computation, and control in a single system. Industry 4.0 is an effort that focuses on the manufacturing process, automation, robotics, and factories and has government support/promotion in Germany whereas IIoT is a technology-focused trend crossing several markets. IIoT encompasses many of the “smart” initiatives, such as smart grid, smart mobility, smart cities, and smart manufacturing (overlap with Industry 4.0).
Q. So what does the IoT space mean to NI?
NI is focusing on how to make things happen faster and enable automation—for our customers, who are typically engineers. We deal with 35,000-plus customers in a year. What we see is that all these technologies (whether you want to call them IIoT, cyber-physical systems or Industry 4.0) are part of a bigger movement, where new technologies are emerging and existing ones are maturing to be deployed in the industry. NI brings industry-leading automated test and automated measurement technologies to connected systems but, it’s not just what NI is doing for IIoT. By incorporating IIoT technologies into its software-defined platform, NI is helping improve engineering workflows with automated, connected test and measurement tools.
Q. To a layman, how would explain NI’s relation with IoT?
A. NI takes technologies common in “smart products” you use every day (wireless communication, sensors, cloud software) and gives them to engineers as part of a platform of tools to help them design better products and get them to market faster. This platform makes some of the tasks they do easier, so they can focus more on the new challenges that will help their company/idea compete in the market.
Q. IOT has applications in a lot of sectors, such as automotive, industrial, retail, agriculture. Which of those are the most critical ones from NI’s perspective?
A. Well from NI’s perspective (as a large player in test and measurement industry)—all are important for us. You see, we are trying to draw attention to the fact that wherever you are in this IoT megatrend, there’s almost always a need to test your application. And, given that a lot of new technologies are coming into play—to make these solutions happen—test is playing a bigger role than before.
Let me give you some specific example. Let’s say if you are into the automotive segment and are dealing with smart mobility and autonomous vehicles, the tests that you will be running are getting more complicated with the increase in complexity of technologies enabling a modern car. So, we clearly see an opportunity to help and automate these tests. On the industrial side, reliability engineers are using NI technology to monitor the critical equipment that generates power for the grid. For agriculture, a company called FireFly uses NI technology to help automate and connect turf harvesters in use in the field back to their service center for better troubleshooting.
Q. Between ‘test’ and ‘measurement’, which of the two—do you believe—will face more demand from the IOT world?
A. We see demand from both segments. For example on the measurement side, Duke Energy’s team is using 2,000-plus CompactRIO measurement systems to get data from motors, pumps and other heavy assets into the command centre. Earlier, they had people walking around with handhelds to collect data manually.
For test, I see a couple aspects. The first is that test equipment needs to stay up and running. An engine test cell, a wind tunnel, or a production tester that shuts down for unexpected maintenance adds risk to design times. This test equipment can have mechanical failure OR it could have a firmware/software processing system error. Monitoring systems and test equipment with IoT technologies can help reduce risk to design and manufacturing.
The other aspect of test in the IoT world I see is connecting the data to the right people. Think of the immense amount of data coming from manufacturing or validation test systems that, today, can’t be analysed in time to help make business driving decisions. Connecting data to the right experts, which could be a human expert, or software-based analytics and machine learning.
Q. In India when we talk about enterprise adoption of IIoT—we see system integrators play an important role. Is the trend similar for NI, or do your partners drive more of the IIoT deployments?
A. The trend I see right now–is very similar to our traditional model, where we have customers that are deploying IIoT themselves and they have the domain expertise in buying the right tools. They buy our solutions such as System Link or LabVIEW NXG. They assemble these solutions in-house. In other cases, they have industry-based domain expertise but need help integrating various tools and technologies which is where our Alliance Partner Network really helps out.
Q. My conversation is simpler when I speak to your competitors since they typically have a specific product for a specific solution. For example, a test system specifically for IoT components or 5G wireless modules. At NI, you seem to have a platform of solutions, which seemingly need to be put together to solve a challenge at hand. Does that not hinder NI’s conversations with its customers?
A. You’ve hit on something that I wanted to highlight. We are integrating IoT technologies into our platforms when and where it will be useful to our customers. We’re focused on making the jobs, the “workflows” of our customer easier and not necessarily putting IoT-labelled products on the market. IoT technologies help with many challenges found in those workflows, but they need to be properly integrated. We talk to customers that want more say in how their measurement and test systems operate rather than having a vendor drive those decisions. Because of our platform-based offering, we can better meet the ever-changing needs of our engineering customers.
Q. With so many data acquisition platforms available, even Rasberry Pi can be converted into data acquisition and streaming device, how would you pitch an NI product in same space? Given that it comes with a certain premium. How does the total cost of ownership discussion gets explained for your solutions?
A. I will try to strip away all the industrial applications and speak broadly. If you look at NI core competency, what we’re really good at is sensing and measurement—we can assure high-quality measurement for any kind of sensor that you can think of. Whether it is an accelerometer, pressure transducer, etc. Connecting that sensor data to processing elements is also something that NI is at good at. We connect this core competency to our end user through a stack of productive development software and robust drivers to help our engineering customer focus on their task. If customers are looking for a data acquisition platform with quality measurement design, industry-leading support, and an expansive ecosystem, all from a company with decades of DAQ experience; products from NI will stand out.
Q. What are your personal thoughts about how you see industrial IoT growing from there?
A. I think there’s a lot of need to showcase successful deployments of Industrial IOT with respect to RoI (return-on-investment). Business decision makers hear a lot of things about IIoT but need to understand if its’ all a hype cycle or is there some substance. Before they commit millions of dollars in connecting their manufacturing plants or diesel generators, if they knew how they will be able to benefit from it—adoption of IIoT could accelerate.
Q. Are such reports coming out to help decision makers take informed decisions w.r.t. IIoT?
A. Yes. The report about Duke Energy is one good example. It’s a case study that’s in the public domain and published by a 3rd party (IHS). Duke Energy was doing 60,000 manual routes daily. After they automated the data measurement and collection, within 4 years they have seen 130 percent return on their capital expense! Thankfully, some case studies like these have started to come out, where organisations are going beyond sharing their vision of becoming more efficient, but also sharing recipes of their recent success.