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Change is the constant: Interview with Dr James Truchard, National Instruments

Interview with Dr James Truchard, National Instruments

After more than 30 years at the helm, Dr T tells Graham Pitcher he is still looking for new opportunities.

There are very few instances where the same person has remained as ceo of a company from its humble beginnings to the point where its annual turnover breaks the $1billion mark and the number of employees exceeds 6000. But that's the case with National Instruments, where Dr James Truchard – known to all within the company and to many outside as Dr T – has steered its progress for approaching 40 years.

The company was established in 1976 and, for the first decade, focused on monitoring and controlling traditional instruments. But it was in 1986 that it made a significant development when it launched LabVIEW for the Macintosh. Since then, the company has continued to develop innovative products that help engineers to solve problems.

Dr Truchard noted in NI's latest annual report: "Since 1976, we have equipped engineers and scientists with tools that accelerate productivity, innovation, and discovery. The breadth of our product portfolio helps us serve a diversity of customers, and this diversity is a key factor in our long track record of growth and profitability. Last year, we sold products to more than 35,000 companies around the world. No single industry accounted for more than 15% of our revenue and no single customer made up more than 4% of our revenue in 2011."

The company is also unusual, in these days of short term vision, in that it has a 100 year plan. This notional long term goal is used to guide company decisions and is seen as an important business differentiator. According to the company, this ensures that decisions made are beneficial to all in the long term.

The one constant about NI is change – and Dr Truchard is looking for more change. "In the last 10 years, we've moved more into the embedded world, where devices such as our CompactRIO are being used to provide a platform based approach in a wide range of applications." And there's good reason for the move; while the traditional test and measurement market which it addresses is probably worth $20billion a year; the embedded market is double that size. While Dr Truchard believes that NI should continue to maintain its role in the test and measurement sector, he noted that opportunities exist in other areas. "We want to move into the rf sector and into other places where measurements are being made," he said.

Yet despite the focus on change, the company remains true to its origins. "We started out with Virtual Instruments in 1986," Dr Truchard recalled, "and talked about how the software is the instrument. We gave users the flexibility to define their own instruments. Virtual Instruments are alive and well, they are our fundamental building block."

Dr Truchard is keen to point out parallels between the development of the electronic design automation market and that of National Instruments. Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley developed Spice in the early 1970s and in 1986 – the year LabVIEW was launched – it published work on synchronous data flow. "For more than 25 years, we've both been focused on data flow as a way of moving further up the curve for system level design. Berkeley has continued to work on data flow for system design," he pointed out, "and LabVIEW's data flow is the next generation of how systems should be built. We have been working on ways to develop LabVIEW for system design and we now have a comprehensive solution."

He is also keen to demonstrate how LabVIEW and other National Instruments tools map on to the classic V model, in which the V shape represents the activities that need to be performed and the results that have to be produced when developing a product.

"If you look at the left hand side of the V," he noted, "it talks about various elements of design. On the right hand side is an array of test elements. But the designs themselves have become more complex, which puts more pressure on designers and test engineers. We need to bring higher levels of abstraction and a systematic way of integrating those abstractions."

So Dr Truchard is now thinking about such approaches as cyber physical test. "This is where you can define systems and then test them at a functional level," he explained. "Other approaches include hardware in the loop test and protocol aware test, where you communicate with devices using the protocol which they expect."

The goal, he noted, is to create a process where IP can be moved from design to test and be used at whatever level of abstraction is sufficient for that task. "It's all about abstraction," he said, "and abstraction makes it possible to scale to more complex systems."

He pointed to applications where there is an overlap between design and test. "Software defined radio is one; radar, for example. You can use the same equipment for embedded measurement as well as embedded design."

One of National Instruments' goals when it launched LabVIEW was to do for engineering what the spreadsheet had done for financial analysis. "The concept of graphical design has been with LabVIEW since the beginning and now we want to do for embedded design what the pc has done for the desktop," Dr Truchard asserted.

"We want to enable designers to integrate an array of applications and to allow them to be shared, creating an ecosystem across design and test. Users can create advanced test and measurement and embedded design systems and have them running in the same system," he concluded.

Dr James Truchard
Dr James Truchard cofounded National Instruments in 1976 while working at The University of Texas at Austin and continues to lead the company as president and chief executive officer.

Before founding NI, Dr Truchard worked as managing director of the acoustical measurements division at Applied Research Laboratories at The University of Texas at Austin.

He is a member and former chairman of the Engineering Foundation Advisory Council and works closely with The University of Texas at Austin as a member of the Chancellor's Council.

Author
Graham Pitcher

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