NI: Helping engineers solve the world’s toughest challenges

For more than 40 years, NI (formerly National Instruments) has developed automated test and measurement systems that help engineers solve some of the world’s toughest challenges.

NI offers a range of hardware, software, and services that can help you turn real-world data into insights that drive your business decisions. Users can choose from products for desktop design and prototyping to fully automated production test systems.

Some of NI’s featured products include:

  • PXI – meet demanding test objectives with a portfolio of modular instruments and configurable software interfaces
  • LabVIEW – create applications using an intuitive graphical programming language with hardware connectivity and IP libraries
  • DAQ – explore data acquisition products with sensor-specific, conditioned I/O for accurate and precise measurements

NI can offer industry-specific expertise across a wide range of sectors including Aerospace & Defence, Electronics, Energy, Transportation, and many more. The company is also knowledgeable in specific focus areas like 5G and 6G technology, electric vehicle test and space launch and exploration.

What does this mean for startups?

“We’ve seen with the smaller companies that there are fewer people that need to do more and that’s where they come to the NI catalogue – to help them do that,” said Brett Burger, Chief Solution Marketer, NI. “We serve the community of engineers, and we have a variety of different options.”

NI can offer a subscription-based software service which is something that startups particularly can take advantage of. Instead of a full investment into the software stack, startups can take out an annual subscription at a much lower cost.

“We’ve seen it from companies in the automotive world that want to do just data logging and they start with small measurements on prototype devices that scale and get larger,” Burger notes.

NI has recently expanded its options to include distributor partners. If you’re buying a lot of components from a certain distributor, then NI software and hardware is now available to make the purchase process easier.

If you need a little more consulting, NI has integration companies and consultants that are able to deep dive into the more technical aspects.

Solving challenges

One of the biggest challenges in the startup market at the moment, Burger notes, is having the flexibility to keep up with change.

“We had this one company making electric flying cars – Joby Aviation – and they talked about how they would see something in a design and have to tear the aircraft apart and rebuild it overnight in order to meet their deadlines.

“This is a company that started to use NI tools for data acquisition and as their designs rapidly evolved, they could just add on or subtract as they went because the solution scaled, and they weren’t building their own instrumentation.”

Another challenge which harks back to an earlier point, is there being fewer people doing more tasks. Burger takes the life sciences and biomedical industry as an example: “There’s a convergence of time-to-market pressures, proving viability, and getting funding combined with the test and regulation involved and I think that squeeze, that challenge right there, is when you really want to employ a tool like the ones NI offers,” Burger said. “[These tools] can encapsulate a lot of the challenges for you and let you focus on what’s new and novel and use off-the-shelf building block.”

Case study: Potrero Medical

One startup that has utilised NI’s tools is Potrero Medical – a Silicon Valley-based predictive health company developing the next generation of medical devices with smart sensors and artificial intelligence. This company’s core product is the Accuryn Monitoring System. It’s designed to transform the traditional Foley catheter into a next generation sensor for accurate, real-time measurement of urine output (UO), intra-abdominal pressure (IAP), and core body temperature (Temp) to help guide care for critically ill patients suffering with kidney problems.

The AccuTab, combined with the Accuryn Monitor, enables providers to achieve their treatment goals of fluid balance while monitoring for early indications of renal failure.

“The monitor sits by the patient’s bedside and we’ve got a small screen that measures abdominal pressure, core body temperature and urine output,” explains Justin Barron, Senior Electrical Engineer, Potrero Medical. “Where we were first using NI tools was to make little test programmes to make sure all the outputs of the data was correct on that monitor.

“Where we really took the major pivot was about two or three years ago now, when COVID started. Doctors wanted an alternative [to the bedside monitor] to where they could see the screen from outside the room. That’s where we came along and made a tablet.

“It was April 2020 when our CEO asked how quickly can we get a tablet to market. We had two dedicated software engineers at the time but they were traditional programmers so they said it was going to take six months to a year to get something out.

“I’m like, well we already have this LabVIEW test programme that we used to talk to the monitor – if only we could make that look prettier. We actually got [the tablet] out in six weeks and since then we’ve just been adding more features.”

Barron’s number one reason for using NI tools is their speed. “Getting up and running with LabVIEW and NI tools is so much quicker than doing traditional programming languages – at least for me.

“There’s also a lot of support out there, not just from NI but from the forums. [If you ever have a problem], within about 10 minutes of searching the forums you can find somebody who’s done it before so you can piggyback off their existing knowledge.”

Barron isn’t a big time programmer by trade but he notes that LabVIEW makes programming less boring. Being about to visually connect things and drag and drop modules instead of just looking at text all day makes a big difference.

Potrero Medical is now in the process of scaling up the business. It has sold a few hundred of the tablets but it does take a while to convince doctors to “ditch their old equipment and buy new stuff” Barron notes.

Future support

As well as its catalogue of tools, NI also has several Innovation Centres that offer many benefits for startups and small businesses.

In March 2022, the company opened one in Bangalore to support customers, partners and startups that serve the local aerospace and defence market. There is also one in Munich, and one planned for Michigan which will focus on electric vehicles.

These innovation centres provide an opportunity for test engineers to build and experiment with prototypes while leveraging NI’s expertise in this space. Users can see their systems in action and experience the projects they will be working on ahead of their investment.

For startups in particular, it means that they don’t have to build their own test labs. They can use NI experts and tools so it’s not a heavy investment from the beginning.

This article originally appeared in the March/April issue of Startups Magazine. Click here to subscribe