Education and Engineering Future at NI Week

Education and Engineering Future at NI Week

Starkloff, Fettweis,  Salva, Hatch

Starkloff, Fettweis, Salvo, Hatch

The third day keynote session at NI Week always features the achievements of students, academics and futurist thinkers. Eric Starkloff, National Instruments’ executive Vice President of Global Sales and Marketing, introduced the session by reminding us of the “Engineering Grand Challenges:” health, sustainability, security, and joy of living. “How do we inspire and train future engineers to tackle these problems?” he challenged the audience.

Dave Wilson: director of academic programs for NI, took us back to issue of time first introduced in CEO James Truchard’s Day One keynote. “Time pieces are infinitely more complex today,” he noted. “And look at transportation. Early automobiles were fundamental systems; new ones, such as the Tesla S, are significantly more complex.”

Do Engineering

So how do we train engineers to keep up and expand on these increasingly complex problem? “Do Engineering” is the theme. We get better through practice. Especially practice with something that maintains consistency over time. NI’s graphical programming system is used by young people with Lego Mindstorms up through engineers solving complex problems. NI’s new MiniSystems help students continue to learn. Over time, NI has reached 4,000,000 “future systems designers”.

Research competition using MyRIO has involved students in 65 countries, 850 universities, 20,000 students. This year 3,250 teams 25 countries entered the student design competition. Three finalists were invited to NI Week. A team from UNC Charlotte developed a NASA launch project for reusable rockets. Students from the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology developed the EureCar, a self-driving car. Introducing the winner, Wilson noted that today’s engineers often take cues from biology such as the study of geometries of soles of frogs for designing tires. This finalist, students from ETH Zurich, took cues from marine life. Studying cuttlefish, the winners build a submarine propulsion mechanism enabling study of marine life without as much disruption as current robots submarines using myRIO and LabView.

Turning to academics, Wilson introduced a trio of professors from MIT. One led a team that developed the world’s largest range high-speed atomic force microscope. Another took the NI technology used in that project and scaled it down for graduate engineering student labs. And the Engineering Impact Award, which attracted 120 papers, went to the third MIT professor who developed “Portable Labs” a small FlexRIO board and with a vibrating strip of metal and magnet for undergraduate students to learn mechatronics. “We know that students want to do engineering not just sit and listen about it.” Amen to that. And, you, too, can own a FlexLab for myRIO for <$50 from MIT.

Future of Engineering

Starkloff introduced the three technology leaders, Mark Hatch, Joe Salvo and Gerhard Fettweis, who each had a short presentation followed by one of the few good panel discussions I’ve seen.

Leader of maker movement, Mark Hatch, CEO of TechShop, author of “The Maker Movement Manifesto”, and recipient of many awards for leading innovative maker communities in many cities, asked attendees, “What will you make? It’s cheaper now than ever before to innovate and make new things.”

Joe Salvo heads GE Global Research, which founded the Industrial Internet Consortium that NI recently joined. The goals of IIC are to break tech silos, bring physical/digital worlds together, and realize promise of M2M. Industrial Internet evolving manufacturing from the systems age. The global community is now connected both in business and socially. First people connected through cellular phones. Then he asked, “How many friends does your computer have? My computer has an active night life after I go to bed getting updates, etc. We have formed enormous value by connecting people, now include all the “things” think of the value that will be created. We are in a New Industrial Revolution with advanced manufacturing using the digital thread. FIrst we replaced back breaking work, then replaced routine work, now brilliant machines and brilliant minds coming together to work jointly.”

Technische Universitat Dresden professor Gerhard Fettweis has cofounded 11 startups. He is now researching wireless for the development of 5G cellular. Showing juxtaposed pictures from the introduction of Pope Benedict to the introduction of Pope Francis just a few years later reveals how the wireless community has changed the planet and glimpse of future. In the first picture one mobile phone is seen in the crowd. In the second, it seems everyone has a smart phone or tablet taking pictures of the event. He is researching a tactile internet where man and machine can meet in real-time control. This will require network latency down to 1 msec.

What are you doing to advance the world?

Flow Diagram Programming

Flow Diagram Programming

Flow Diagram Programming

Source: Wikipedia

It is interesting, or maybe coincidental, that I had just left the National Instruments user conference about Graphical Programming (among other things) when I downloaded a Robert Scoble podcast interview with the principles of a new company who just launched a flow chart programming tool for high-tech programmers. (I couldn’t find a link for Scoble, but search Scobleizer on iTunes.)

The company has released No Flow JS and many companies had picked it up. A sample of the Flow Diagram Programming accompanies this post.

This brought back all the memories of flow-chart programming from the 90s. The only company still successfully pushing that paradigm to my knowledge is Opto 22. Phoenix Contact picked up the remnants of Think ‘n Do and Steeplechase many years ago. I can remember when the latter two companies thought that everyone would flock to their controllers because it was so much easier and more understandable to program in with flow charts than ladder diagram.

Unfortunately for them, engineers were afraid of the control platform–a PC. I told the CEOs for years that they should stop arguing in their ads about whose real-time operating system was better and concentrate on why engineers should switch from PLCs to the new platform. Meanwhile, Opto 22 found its niche and happily keeps customers happy with its controller and flow-chart programming.

NI uses a paradigm much like function block programming. I have programmed in LabView and recommend it over Ladder. On the other hand, I realize that there remain many thousands of technicians who are quite comfortable in Ladder. But even for those who love Structured Text, perhaps they should take a look at flow chart programming. If it’s coming to mainstream programming, could industrial be far behind?

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