Where We Find Failure

published

04.27.2021

A systems engineer at NI poses in her research and development lab.
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A year of distance from our colleagues and endless days of screens and virtual interaction have made our hands quite restless and nostalgic to say the least. As expert connectors, building innovative solutions comes naturally to us in any environment, but our hands love to tinker with the tools, hardware, and software in today’s modern lab. At NI, the pandemic made it abundantly clear how much we needed a dedicated space to build and, more importantly, find failure when it arises.

Conceived in 2019 and recently completed, our new, state-of-the-art labs on the first floor of our Mopac A building in Austin, Texas, are spaces where we find failure. We test and problem-solve for all our clients across many industries, including aerospace, transportation, semiconductor, and electronics.

These labs house robust, spacious areas for assembling systems, testing and discovering defects at a system level, and verifying and validating systems before they move to manufacturing or the end customer. In the lab, testing and performance checks are continually run on post-released systems to look for additional possible issues and points of improvement.

Javier A. Lozano, Senior Systems R&D Mechanical Engineer, in the ECU Test Lab

Before this lab space was built, testing facilities on our Austin campus were scattered everywhere, so we had to carry tools and supplies from floor to floor and even building to building. Consolidating the test labs into a single area not only streamlines projects and makes workflow more efficient but also allows creative minds to come together and share energy in a powerful way.

Throughout the pandemic, virtual technology enabled us to do what we love safely. Yet, many engineering processes—especially hardware-involved work—required a hands-on approach at times. To cope with the new normal during the pandemic, some engineers on our team added extra insulation and power supplies to their homes to run manufacturing tests. For work that needed to remain on-site, we followed strict COVID-19 precautions to ensure safety at every point.

We’re a global company working across many different continents, so connecting people despite physical obstacles is not a new challenge. However, as circumstances allow, we’re excited to journey together and gather in one common space, especially when problem-solving to meet our customers’ ever-growing ambitions. Currently, a few people are safely staffed in the labs with that number anticipated to increase as health and safety guidelines allow. After many months of working from home, the anticipation among engineers to get back into the lab is palpable; it almost feels like the first day of school. Our eagerness to conduct our research and find answers in this new space is generating a burst of motivation in us. We can’t wait to bump into each other in the hallways and share new ideas.

Designing Space to Innovate

Our newest labs were designed to meet extremely rigorous specifications. After months of construction, we are providing our engineers with an intelligently designed space that’s as agile as the teams they serve. But our thoughtful intentions didn’t stop in designing the layout. We worked to repurpose and reuse as many materials and other supplies as possible to outfit these labs. We didn’t want this project to add more waste to our surrounding landfills, so we built these spaces with sustainability in mind. This is another example of our commitment to engineering a healthy planet.

The new labs are dedicated to testing sophisticated, complex systems including electric vehicle batteries, inverters, electronic control units (ECUs), advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS), and aerospace line replaceable units (LRUs). A smart layout to organize all our tools is key to finding failures before our customers do.

NIers collaborate in the Aerospace and Defense Alpha Lab

Aerospace and Defense Alpha Lab

For our aerospace, defense, and government project testing, we subdivided the space into three lab areas for a variety of testing needs. To comply with International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), these controlled lab areas are designed with the highest level of security and require extensive training before use. The Alpha lab is dedicated to system assembly, and the Expo lab is designed for customer-facing interaction. The latter will soon include cameras for virtual demos.

Space is also allocated to our own product research and development, manufacturing, and test engineering projects. Engineers know that test systems require large and wide spaces, which is why our research and development teams occupy the biggest area on the floor. Each lab is built to system-level specifications instead of product-level specifications, which means when we look for failure, we look for it on a larger scale. Though we’re privileged to have the space to make customer-facing impressions and host other organizations, our research and development labs are a critical part of our business strategy. They’re the places where we can showcase the raw, gritty, and real side of what we do.

Failing with Tomorrow in Mind

The maintenance of our labs is part of our commitment to innovation. Our markets are dynamic, so our labs had to be designed with both speed and future developments in mind. Over time, we anticipate our customer needs to change and systems to take on new shapes and forms or require different energy consumption levels. Because of this, we built the labs with unique features including semi-flexible walls. We can reconfigure the space as needed to accommodate new priorities, changes in business direction, and our customers’ evolving needs

The lab is a place where we can demonstrate best practices and values on a daily basis, overcome challenges, and refine our thinking to make progress in the long run. If something fails in a system, we must iterate until we meet customer specifications. The same is true with our own processes. For example, during lab construction, we looked for failures in our design and discovered one doorway would not be big enough to accommodate a test system we’re planning to design in a few years. We rehabbed the door and considered all scenarios for transporting similar equipment in the future—not only months but years from now.

As we create a path forward, we’re building for scale to find solutions for an extraordinary today, tomorrow, and next 100 years.

 

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