NI looks to upend bench with software-based all-in-one instrument

National Instruments today proposed a radical reinvention the electrical engineer's laboratory bench top with the introduction of a display-free, knob-free multifunction instrument that relies on software to provide a PC or iPad user interface.

Called VirtualBench, the compact all-in-one instrument integrates a mixed-signal oscilloscope, function generator, digital multimeter, programmable DC power supply, and digital I/O. In addition to signal and power I/O, the instrument's exterior includes one button: an on/off switch.

NI has long been a pioneer in bringing a software-based virtual-instrument approach to the automated-test environment, with, for example, the company's NI LabVIEW software controlling PXI test systems. Chris Delvizis, senior product manager at NI, says the new product brings a similar software approach to the bench top.

Delvizis said, “We think the next generation of engineers will come to expect same UI found on PCs and mobile devices. We set out to build a better bench-top instrument to take advantage of the latest UI technology.” He cited a Frost & Sullivan quote in support: “Engineers will increasingly associate the concept of a user interface with the one they use on their consumer electronics devices.”

Make no mistake—NI is neither the first company to offer “faceless” bench-top instruments, nor is it the first to offer multifunction, all-in-one bench-top instruments. In the latter category, Tektronix, for example, recently introduced the MDO3000 Series of mixed-domain oscilloscopes, each of which includes a spectrum analyzer and optional logic analyzer, protocol analyzer, arbitrary function generator, and digital voltmeter. Yet the instrument itself retains the UI and associated costs for buttons, knobs, and displays.

And in the former, “faceless” bench-top instrument category, companies including Pico Technology and Copper Mountain Technologies offer display- and knob-free USB-connected modules that implement bench-top oscilloscope and vector network analyzers, respectively. Yet these are single-function solutions that would require the user to integrate and program multi-instrument functionality, should the user choose to acquire multiple and diverse such hardware instrument modules. And of course, engineers have been able to buy a compact chassis and add PXI instruments to their bench top.

NI's innovation is to consolidate a popular combination on instrumentation and provide the PC- or iPad-resident software that speeds the engineer's design task while minimizing cost, programming effort, and bench real estate. Delvizis estimated that the $1,999 VirtualBench could replace $5,940 worth of separate bench-top instruments.

And Delvizis quoted Russell Stanphil, electronics advisor at TechShop (the open-access public workshop popular among the maker culture), as saying, “Before, I didn’t have the room or budget to buy a full setup for each bench. I can now park one laptop and a VirtualBench on each seat, replacing four to five boxes.”

As for the academic environment, Delvizis quotes Dr. Len Trombetta of the University of Houston as saying, “The setup is for VirtualBench is easier and the interface is simpler.”

And driving home the applicability of the platform to everyday engineering applications, Delvizis quotes an Analog Devices Inc. field applications engineer as saying, “These integrated devices are the way forward. It’s a one stop shop that does 90% of the stuff you have to do.”

VirtualBench includes a 2-analog-channel, 100-MHz, 1-GS/s, 8-bit mixed-signal oscilloscope with 32 digital channels; 8-channel LVTTL digital I/O; a 20-MHz (sine) 14-bit, 125-MS/s function generator; 5.5-digit DMM (300 V, 10 A max); and a programmable DC power supply offering 6 V at 1 A, +25 V at 0.5 A, and -25 V at 0.5 A.

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