Potential Demonstrated

By themselves, sensors are nothing but little bundles of potential. That's why implementation demos are so inspiring and idea-provoking. For me, the most exciting demonstration at NI Week 2005, National Instruments' (www.ni.com) 11th international conference, was SawStop (www.sawstop.com, a table saw equipped to shut off within 3–5 ms (1/200th of a second) of a capacitive object's coming into contact with its blade.

The saw works by inducing an electrical signal into the blade and monitoring that signal for changes. Materials that are electrically nonconductive and have little capacitance (wood, plastic, etc.) elicit no response, but human fingers will trigger the brake. Or, in the case of the NI demo (onstage during the opening keynote), a hot dog pushed steadily by human fingers toward the menacing blade (one can never be too cautious with a spinning saw!) proved the point.

Barbara G. Goode
Barbara G. Goode

Maybe you're wondering what this has to do with National Instruments, a company so influential in the sensor realm that, in fact, makes no sensors at all (or saws!). Well, in the setup onstage at the opening-day technology keynote, the signal returned by the SawStop blade was routed through NI's CompactRIO (which won one of our Best of Sensors Expo awards in June) and LabVIEW before being fed back to stop the saw by jamming a piece of metal between two of its teeth. In a stunning demonstration of speed, the hot dog received only a nick to the surface—and the audience exploded in applause nearly as quickly.

Another crowd pleaser was the programmable automation controller (built by Texas A&M students and incorporating CompactRIO and Compact Vision System) that sorted ball bearings—dropped like grains of sand through an hourglass—by size. The system spun a rotary stage to bounce them into different containers at the rate of four bearings per second.

The inverted pendulum demo that NI has shown over the years was there—except that this time NI's fast CFP-2120 controller simultaneously balanced three pendulums.

Beyond Control

Control was one theme at NI Week, and wireless was another. Perhaps the fact that NI has not yet added to the wireless sensing phenomenon with products owes to its having been burned by backing a particular fieldbus technology very early on. But that doesn't mean the company isn't interested. The most critical piece of the puzzle, said cofounders James Truchard and Jeff Kodosky in a meeting with the press, is battery power—an area that needs to move forward significantly. And the company hinted that it will pursue wireless developments. Perhaps NI could add to the mix of technologies with field programmability; it seems clear to me that the power of FPGAs has yet to be realized.

Kodosky and Truchard said NI is still working to realize the original promise of LabVIEW (launched in 1986), and expects to continue doing so for another decade or two. (Remember, this is a company with a 100-year plan!) The company's collaboration with Analog Devices, known for its innovation in data conversion and signal conditioning, was trumpeted at the event, as the partners announced a new LabVIEW Embedded Module for ADI Blackfin processors and integration of ADIsimADC converter modeling software with NI's SignalExpress. But frankly, my favorite announcement involving ADI had nothing to do with NI. It was ADI's new parametric evaluation tool for amplifiers: www.analog.com/designcenter/ampevaltool, an inspiring means for comparing options.