Graphical System Design

Publish Date: Feb 15, 2013 | 15 Ratings | 2.53 out of 5 | Print | 2 Customer Reviews | Submit your review

Table of Contents

  1. Platform-Based Approach
  2. Graphical System Design in the Real World
  3. Platform Ecosystem Drives Innovation

Learn how this platform-based approach accelerates the development of any system that needs measurement and control.

Figure 1. LabVIEW and NI deployment targets make it possible for a single system platform approach to accelerate the development of any system that needs measurement and control.

Global competition and rapidly changing technology create pressure on companies developing competitive products. To get ahead of these disruptive forces, you need tools that help you abstract increasing complexity and harness the power of technological evolution to your advantage. However, the initial investment cost in learning and using new tools can prevent you from leveraging the technology you need.

Graphical system design, using an open platform of productive software and reconfigurable hardware, shortens the integration cycle for new technology and functionality. You can visualize and implement systems faster because the platform makes technology easier to access through intuitive interfaces to accelerate the design, prototyping, and deployment of your system.

1. Platform-Based Approach

Graphical system design is a platform-based approach to accelerate the development of any system that needs measurement and control. When developing a system, you can build from scratch, buy a full solution, or upgrade existing systems. With graphical system design, you shorten the development process by using your knowledge of the platform to map any application requirement through a consistent API to deploy to the specific hardware target you need. This flexible, integrated software and hardware platform speeds the development of test, control, monitoring, embedded, measurement, and any combination of these systems that need measurement and control. Figure 1 shows NI LabVIEW software and NI hardware as graphical system design tools that enable a system platform approach to development. The platform-based approach helps you more easily integrate changing technology and requirements over time while providing better productivity, higher performance, and lower costs than point solutions.

Key Elements to a Flexible System Platform

Any system that needs measurement and control can be broken down into key elements: measurement and control I/O, mathematical models and analysis, user or operator interfaces, processing, communications, and other technologies. To design and implement these systems, you need ways to describe system functionality in software: models of computation, representations of system timing, and so on. You can combine these elements with the physical hardware platforms to make the functional system a reality.

LabVIEW system design software integrates system elements in a way that abstracts complexity to help you focus on meeting your application challenges rather than on system integration. It offers the ability to visualize multiple ways to program system functionality, using the best model of computation for the behavior that you need. With LabVIEW, you can also more easily visualize the timing in your system by using tools ranging from software Timed Loops in the millisecond range to nanosecond hardware timing on system backplanes. Finally, you gain access to thousands of built-in and community-developed libraries that integrate mathematical models, I/O hardware, and any other components you need to build a system.

Figure 2. A graphical representation of FPGA system functionality replaces thousands of lines of equivalent VHDL code.


Abstracting Complexity

Figure 2 shows how LabVIEW abstracts the complexity of commercial technologies like field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs). An intuitive loop and icons replace thousands of lines of equivalent VHDL code. Communication protocols, digital signal processing (DSP) programming, system timing, I/O, analysis, and other elements of systems are abstracted in the same manner, giving you high-level functionality combined with low-level access when necessary. Without this approach, you have to learn technology-specific development tools to integrate the components or interface with specialists who can do so. By leveraging commercial technology more easily with graphical system design, you gain the performance and cost benefits of those technologies faster.

Integrating Diverse Requirements

Graphical system design also helps you meet diverse requirements faster than traditional system design methods. To visualize system functionality, different system components may need different methods, or models of computation, to best describe them. For example, parallel programming is best represented using data flow, but equations are efficiently represented using text. The structure of the system may be state based, sequential, or a mixed model. LabVIEW incorporates multiple models of computation to describe various components of your system in the way that best fits your need. For example, interactive text-based math in a node makes it easy to incorporate math into the same diagram that interfaces graphically with other signal processing, user interface, and I/O requirements. You can also incorporate compiled ANSI C code as libraries or use a state machine to describe event-based systems.

Finally, LabVIEW VIs compile through the desktop, real-time, FPGA, and DSP compile tools to multiple hardware targets. The targets share common architecture elements that make it easier to scale from high-performance and high-power requirements to lower cost, smaller footprint systems.

Hardware Architectures Optimized for Graphical System Design

While you can use stand-alone instruments or other I/O systems that have predefined, dedicated functionality with LabVIEW, you can’t use software to truly optimize functionality with those systems. NI system platforms deliver modular I/O and processing capabilities disaggregated via software, making it much easier to define the exact functionality you need and upgrade components over time. LabVIEW abstracts the complexity of these elements in the same way as any other element. Once you invest in the system platform approach, you can use architectures that are optimized for graphical system design to integrate and iterate quickly at each stage of the product development cycle.

Graphical system design includes both software and hardware as part of a design and implementation platform. Often in the implementation phase of prototypes or end systems, IP from design tools needs translation, slowing down development. Even relatively complete models may behave unexpectedly in the real world. Traditional hardware implementation of initial designs can also require multiple tools and disciplines. Graphical system design helps you overcome these challenges by integrating software with customizable, off-the-shelf hardware from beginning to end. This approach takes a comprehensive view of the system for the ultimate purpose, whether that’s a controller for wind turbines or an automated test system. With graphical system design, you can combine LabVIEW with customizable, off-the-shelf options to rapidly explore viable solutions.

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2. Graphical System Design in the Real World

The productivity benefits of graphical system design span every industry in which engineers are creating systems that need measurement and control. At Biorep Technologies, for example, engineers use graphical system design to control complex, automated medical instrumentation. This approach to system design gave Biorep a single learning curve for software and hardware, reducing the company’s development time from one year to three months.

This same platform helped scientists at the Instituto de Astrofisica de Canarias gain performance and cost benefits while developing a system to position actuators for the European Very Large Telescope array. The initial performance trade-off they expected to make by choosing a customizable, off-the-shelf platform, as opposed to a custom design, never materialized. In fact, they exceeded their performance requirements while significantly reducing development time.

Figure 3. Graphical system design using the NI platform is supported by a growing ecosystem of IP, technology, and applications.


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3. Platform Ecosystem Drives Innovation

When using graphical system design, you can leverage the work of other engineers in the platform ecosystem by accessing thousands of software and hardware components to efficiently solve your application. See Figure 3 for the specifics of the NI graphical system design platform ecosystem. The successful adoption of virtual instrumentation in the test industry, supported by the ecosystem of PCs in software and I/O peripherals, is one example of how the graphical system design approach revolutionized an application space by delivering significantly higher performance at lower costs.

Many engineering tools optimize specific areas of the design through the implementation process, even while trying to create an integrated flow. Often these tools or platforms have either software or hardware as the primary focus, and tend to deprioritize integration of the overall system. You can easily select toolchains that continue to require more expertise and time to get to the real solution. But with graphical system design, you gain a flexible platform that abstracts complexity and tightly integrates software and hardware to shorten the most time-consuming portions of the design process. With LabVIEW, reconfigurable hardware, and an ecosystem of IP, you can leverage thousands of person-years of work to help you innovate and invent–fast.

Norma Dorst

Norma Dorst is a corporate marketing manager at National Instruments. Her current role includes marketing the company vision and brand and ensuring global marketing alignment and communication. She holds a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from The University of Texas at Austin.

See examples of the most innovative projects using graphical system design.

This article first appeared in the Q4 2011 issue of Instrumentation Newsletter.

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Customer Reviews
2 Reviews | Submit your review

Thank you for your feedback  - Jan 26, 2012

We appreciate your comments and will use them as we continue to improve our newsletter content. Lacy Rohre, Managing Editor

word salad  - Nov 17, 2011

i have been a test eng for +20 years, and i have no idea what the author is trying to explain in this article. it seems like someone is trying to throw a lot of words around to wow some suits who really are not connected with real world testing.

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