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What does the Industrial Internet of Things mean for automated test?

The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) is reaching the test and measurement industry at an interesting time. Test managers are aware of talk of ‘disruptive change’, but are unsure how the technology could impact their systems.

The key is to understand how the IoT applies to test and measurement and how companies have reinvented themselves with a platform-based approach benefitting from this technology. By building from a proven software and hardware platform, test managers can not only raise productivity but help to future-proof their organisations.

In the IIoT, test managers use a variety of test and measurement instruments, ranging from oscilloscopes and multimeters to function generators and fully integrated smart testers.

What makes these tools IIoT enabled is a combination of technologies: device-to-device communication; automated analytics; and scalable systems – technologies that industry leaders have implemented through software platforms for many years.

At release in 2006, NI LabVIEW 8.20 software was notable for including a web server for building test and measurement systems. For automated test developers at Microsoft working on testing Xbox 360 controllers, this provided unprecedented device-to-device communication. Combined with GPIB, serial, and other network communication protocols such as TCP/IP, the web server provided a way for test systems to communicate results to each other and back to a central archive.

When developing new functional tests for the Xbox 360 controllers, developers found that optimising as many parallel tests as possible in a limited production cycle time was a significant challenge. Microsoft realised that knowing the status of all of its testers and viewing a central repository of all test data presented an operational advantage to optimise these tests and produce less expensive, more reliable devices.

Today test organisations around the world are building software infrastructure to remotely monitor, analyse and even control their production test systems.

Value from test data

Device-to-device communication is only truly valuable when meaningful insights can be derived from the data through automated analytics. This is an area where the test industry has long been ahead of other industries.

For aerospace giant Raytheon Missile Systems, wide varieties of analogue data are logged to a central repository of binary files tagged with relevant metadata to allow the data to be analysed. Automated analysis of this data is conducted in tools like LabVIEW and NI DIAdem, providing a high-level view of the performance and immediately report results back to operators and managers. Without a software platform to manage this data, it is common for test organisations to be overwhelmed by the substantial amounts of data they collect and are unable to derive value from.

In addition to centralised analysis on the server, for distributed test systems, automated analysis on the node can provide significant operational advantages. Although raw analogue data may overwhelm a network, FPGA or CPU processing on the node can synthesise data into digestible pieces, such as average values, that can be communicated more succinctly over the network to other stakeholders. Equipped with the LabVIEW reconfigurable I/O (RIO) architecture, a high-level graphical programming approach, test engineers can take advantage of user-programmable FPGAs and embedded controllers to perform distributed analytics or make instant decisions at the node without needing to send data back to a central server.

Alongside device to device communication and automated analysis implemented in software, another crucial aspect of IIoT systems already found in today’s test and measurement applications is scalable hardware systems. For wireless telecom leader Qualcomm, disparate, lengthy measurements on traditional box instruments were driving up the cost of measurement in a cost-sensitive industry.

By upgrading from RF signal generators and analysers to NI’s modular, PXI-based hardware platform, Qualcomm saved rack space and lowered the cost of test. More importantly, by taking advantage of the user programmable FPGA hardware on NI’s vector signal transceiver, test time fell by a factor of 200.

Building on a flexible hardware platform that uses the latest commercial technology such as NI PXI turns future requirements from a threat of obsolescence to an opportunity to upgrade – a new PXI module can be incorporated into the existing test system. Or if the processing power for a complex RF measurement is inadequate, the PXI controller can be replaced with the NI PXIe-8880, which features an eight core Intel Xeon processor. This flexibility opens up test systems to new technology enablers, such as silicon advances, user programmable FPGAs and timing and synchronisation advances.

IIoT systems are constantly evolving to include more and more nodes with varying I/O requirements. To meet these challenges, a software platform must support flexible, modular hardware solutions.

Business opportunities

Although the IIoT has manifested itself in test and measurement over the last decade, there are significant opportunities to make test systems smarter. Web, cloud, and mobile technology are redefining the landscape and, for the first time, fully automated end-to-end testing, analysis and adaptation are real possibilities.

For some test managers and organisations, there may not be a choice. As test budgets are further squeezed, requirements continue to change rapidly and time-to-market pressures increase, piecemeal hardware systems with software built from scratch will become increasingly untenable.

LabVIEW and NI TestStand can deliver the software platform needed for test engineers to use scalable test hardware to achieve device-to-device communication and automated analysis. LabVIEW 2015 has been designed to help engineers write code faster. NI’s software portfolio gives test engineers the time to focus on the test challenges at hand without getting caught up in the low-level details.

This empowers developers to build a robust IIoT solution while avoiding the risk of building a software solution from the ground up. Device-to-device communication is possible through methods such as PXI chassis backplane communication buses, embedded network protocol support, and HTTP web methods.

Meanwhile, technologies like NI Cloud Dashboard allow devices to upload streams of test data to the cloud, where they can be accessible from any device with an internet connection.

This software platform empowers test engineers to use hardware with commercial technology like NI’s eight core PXI controller or high-voltage system SMU.

While the IoT receives a lot of attention from the technology community, it presents test organisations with a real opportunity. Test managers armed with software that provides integrated device communication and automated analysis can discover areas for rapid improvement and provide radical cost savings.

When this software is combined with a scalable modular hardware platform, this is a chance for organisations to capitalise on the latest commercial technology without being limited by rigid fixed functionality instruments.

Returning to the original question, is the IIoT a disruptive new opportunity or just validation of proven technologies in the test and measurement industry? The answer is up to each test manager to decide. What is certain is that the IIoT will give rise to smarter test systems that will further redefine test and measurement in the decades ahead.

Author
Neil Tyler

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