Embracing innovation at the source leads to technology breakthroughs

At the heart of National Instruments' success over its 30 years is a culture of innovation. The founders – Jeff Kodosky, Bill Nowlin and I – were young, and possibly naive. However, not knowing what couldn't be done was probably a benefit. We had a dream in the late 1970s: 'To do for engineers what the spreadsheet did for financial analysts.


At the heart of National Instruments' success over its 30 years is a culture of innovation. The founders %%MDASSML%% Jeff Kodosky, Bill Nowlin and I %%MDASSML%% were young, and possibly naive. However, not knowing what couldn't be done was probably a benefit. We had a dream in the late 1970s: 'To do for engineers what the spreadsheet did for financial analysts.' The user interface of the Apple computer, the ease-of-use of the spreadsheet and the emergence of the PC platform were the inspiration for a new software tool we called LabVIEW.

We have worked hard to ingrain innovation into the NI culture to stay ahead of the changes in technology used for manufacturing. We encourage it through some simple practices. The sources of innovation can be stated very simply: things, people and concepts. Yet the challenge is fostering a culture that acts swiftly or, in the NI lingo, 'executes violently' on the right new ideas. We follow these simple concepts to stay ahead.

Things. This is a simple way of saying technology tracking is important. NI is constantly looking for components from high-volume PC, cell phone and communications industries that can be applied to the measurement and automation market. The key concept is to bridge technologies from distant industries.

Take USB for example. Typically, these mass market technologies start out being viewed as not for industrial or manufacturing applications, yet they eventually gain broad support because of their cost, ease of use and performance advantages. It's safe to say this happened for Ethernet over the last decade, and we are now seeing USB being adopted at a high rate for machine monitoring and as a mobile platform for measurements.

Another example is field-programmable gate array technology. Consumer electronics product designers have used FPGAs in a broad range of high-volume products such as digital cameras, digital television, set-top boxes, game consoles, PC screen projectors and graphics boards and GPS driver information systems. Product designers use FPGAs for many reasons, including time-to-market and performance.

These devices cost more and use more power than low-cost, application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs), but they are easier for design experts to program. At one time, FPGAs were the dominion of embedded programmer experts. Now our dream is 'to do for embedded what the PC did for the desktop.' We want to make it simpler to develop embedded control applications for the masses.

People. In the late 1800s, Henry Ford gathered best practices and ideas from unrelated industries, such as meat packing (conveyers with hooks that bring the product to the workers), Campbell Soup (continuous-flow food processing) and Singer sewing machines (machines with interchangeable parts), to 'invent' the assembly line. It's a myth, spread by marketers to enhance the Ford company reputation, that he was the lone inventor. He relied on, and sometimes hired technical experts from these leading companies to implement the vision of the assembly line.

The point is that innovation is most always a joint activity that involves understanding and tapping into visionary customers or experts. NI has a healthy 'early adopter' program for which we engage customers to understand future technology trends for automation. University professors are especially important in that their research often involves leading-edge applications that are useful in predicting future needs.

Concepts. Knowledge is the raw material for innovation. However, it is counter-intuitive that deep knowledge in a particular area can hamper or even hold back breakthrough ideas. For example, the inventors of traditional stand-alone instruments had a hard time envisioning PC-based instrumentation just as the makers of vacuum-tubes were not motivated to pursue silicon-based transistors.

Expertise in today's leading technologies may limit thinking about what the future may hold. This means that someone or a group within the organization should be focused on breadth of knowledge versus depth of knowledge to foster innovation. Don't get me wrong %%MDASSML%% you need deep technical knowledge. But for radical innovation, you need leaders who have breadth of knowledge to drive innovation within the organization.

Author Information

Dr. James Truchard is a cofounder of National Instruments and has served as CEO and president since its inception in 1976. Truchard was instrumental in pioneering virtual instrumentation, co-inventing the LabVIEW graphical development environment. He was elected to the National Academy of Engineering this year.

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