Software is at heart of everything, says National Instruments
Alex Davern, chief operating officer of National Instruments, believes a decision to give away reuseable software with its first hardware products in the mid 1970s has defined the design and test system firm over the last 35 years.
“The company’s first product was a GPIB card. Then we wrote a reuseable driver and gave it away for free with the card. This was the secret sauce for National Instruments, creating a reuseable software platform for instruments,” says Davern.
“We offer reuseable elements and this means the engineers and scientists do not have to think about the low level technology details,” says Davern.
Davern said the company’s modular approach to hardware only works if the user can put together the system with a high degree of success and this is provided by the firm’s LabView design software tools.
“In this way LabView is at the heart of what we do, from controlling Lego to the Large Hadron Collider,” says Davern.
LabView was launches in 1986 and then it ran only on the Apple MAC. This created a level of exclusivity which Davern now believes was an advantage for the company.
“This was good because we could innovate in a protected market without being attacked.
But the hardware platforms, with high speed analogue-to-digital converters at their heart were also important. For this NI relied on developments in semiconductor technologies at companies as Intel, ADI and Maxim.
“99.9% of the R&D needed to bring our products to market is done by other companies,” says Davern.
For Davern, modular instruments can be more cost-effective because they do not have the built-in redundancy of box instruments. “You do not buy eight of everything to get the high speed A-to-D which is what you really want,” says Davern.
How easy is it being an engineering company in the modern financial world?
“If you are running an engineering company today, you have a problem. Wall Street’s motivation is not aligned with us at all. Our approach has been to keep investment bankers out of the business, their interests are on a different time-line,” says Davern.
“If you run a business for the long term you must not cede control to anyone whose time-line is not the same as yours,” says Davern.
“We do not need these people to tell us what to do,” says Davern.
“It takes discipline to do this,” he adds.
With 1,900 people working on R&D within the company, Davern likes to think that NI is now “at the top table for mainstream test and measurement”.
Davern says the company can continue to resist the pressures of Wall Street and has a target of doubling the size of the company to reach $2bn in revenues by 2016.
“But this will make us more of a target (for the money men),” says Davern.
To achieve this Davern has three basic rules. “We will not be trapped in any one market, we will not be wedded to any one platform and most importantly we must embrace new technologies and not protect old technologies,” says Davern.
NI started as a supplier of data capture cards and then moved in to developing test and measurement systems. More recently it has applied its same philosophy of reusable software in to embedded development systems.
For Davern, the trigger for the move into embedded design has been the FPGA, and NI has developed close technology links with suppliers such as Xilinx.
“FPGAs are the disruptive technology in this market,” says Davern.
“Our platforms do not compete with programmable logic firms, we compete with a customer’s internal tools and design cycles, and for us the heart of it is again LabView,” says Davern.
“I believe we have potential to bring even higher value to the embedded space than we do to the test and measurement space,” says Davern.