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NI discusses R&D focus, product strategy

02 Nov 2012  | Vivek Nanda

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National Instruments' discussion of the vector signal transceiver (VST) at the NI Week in August and its comparison with a competing product had stirred up excitement in some circles. The company claimed that the VST "re-defined instrumentation," and their CEO James Truchard put the development on the same footing as the first introduction of the LabView software.

EDN Asia got a chance in Singapore, after the dust had settled, to sit down with Chandran Nair, managing director for Southeast Asia, and Victor Mieres, VP of Emerging Markets at National Instruments, and get their opinion on industry challenges, the company's R&D focus and product development strategy, and of course, the VST.

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Chandran Nair: "Our differentiator�is going to be [that] we can do this natural convergence through our tools."

EDN Asia: What challenges do you feel the test industry is facing delivering solutions for electronics engineers? For instance, SoCs require inter-disciplinary skills.

Nair: It is the converging technologies in almost any domain... the biggest challenge for electronics engineers would be to make sure they know what kind of testing needs to be done as different technologies converge.

For us, the challenge would be to make sure that our tools integrate to meet different kinds of needs. For example, when you look at a mobile phone, [you want] to be able to do compression, photography, video downloads, and, of course, WiFi, Bluetooth and other connectivity features. Each of them used to have separate testers not too long ago. To bring all of them in and to run it in a cost-effective way is the biggest challenge for the customer and, for us, it is to provide a platform so that the customer can do this easily.

So, complexity is increasing and cost is decreasing. We as consumers are demanding it. So the biggest challenge is to reduce the cost of test, while increasing the coverage for complex devices.

Our differentiator I believe and a very good chance for our success is going to be [that] we can do this natural convergence through our tools... we have physical signals, visual signals, motion signals—all already mapped into our platform. That's how I think we are going to address it.

We'll have to be always top our game especially from the wireless point of view—new standards that are going to come out, like 5G—to make sure we have at least the base-level toolkits so that the customer can get started.

During a press meeting in Singapore, NI executives discussed the setting up of an R&D and manufacturing hub in Penang (see NI invests in the long term with new Penang facility). During the meeting, Victor Mieres said, "One of the things that are very exciting for me is the R&D growth in the emerging markets. The two biggest centres are going to be Bangalore and Penang. They are working on global projects but the fact that they closer to the market, they are more aware of the market needs. The relationships they have with the managers [at customers], will allow us to have more innovative products that are geared more towards applications that are focused on the needs over here. [They could also be] ...lower cost products because of some of the applications that are unique here."

EDN Asia: In what direction are you focusing your R&D efforts? I see that you are opening an R&D hub in Penang as well.

Nair: Our R&D efforts are at the global and local levels. At the global level, our R&D efforts are clearly defined by our CEO and the engineering team who take feedback of the market through the sales and marketing channels. One of the things that we will be working on is to see if we need to come up with any geography-specific products and, if we do, then what that means, where will they be developed. Those are things that I think we are in the preliminary phases of evaluating ourselves.

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Victor Mieres: One of the things that are very exciting for me is the R&D growth in the emerging markets.

As a first pass, we make products that can be used across different industries, across different geographies—that has been our primary way of going to market. But that does not mean that it is going to be the only way. There's probably a good chance that we will look at ranges of products that address certain specific geographies or applications.

EDN Asia: Do you have anything on the market [for a specific geography] that you could use as an example?

Nair: We started with some but they always do get broadly adopted. Some of the things you could think about are the low-cost data acquisition products, which were primarily addressing certain local needs in Asia but have been very broadly accepted. From the education side, there have been also some specific products like the ELVIS [Educational Laboratory Virtual Instrumentation Suite] and the MyDAQ [a low-cost data acquisition device for students to measure and analyse live signals] and each was supposed to initially address certain needs but again it addresses a very broad base.

So it's always started somewhere and then it seems to get a wider adoption. Probably the reason is that we make broad-based tools.

When asked if NI grows by acquisition in an earlier meeting, Nair said, "We do acquire a little bit but that is not our primary growth strategy. Our primary growth strategy is organic growth. Acquisitions are mostly for technology. But we are not one of those companies that acquire to grow."

"It is really difficult from the technology point of view to come up with really good RF equipment," added Mieres. "So we made some acquisitions in the RF space�in design as well as instrumentation. For instance, we acquired Phase Matrix and AWR [both in May 2011]. AWR does RF modelling. We are trying to merge it into the graphical systems design,... LabView based."

AWR and NI had been working together on products even before the merger. More recently they have demonstrated co-simulation capabilities between AWR's VSS, a "Visual System Simulator" for designing complex RF and wireless systems, and NI's LabView.

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