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Accelerate embedded system design with NI's LabVIEW platform

Posted: 14 Sep 2006 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:National Instruments? Brian MacCleery?

From consumer electronics to industrial machinery and automotive computers, the engineers that design embedded systems are working in a fiercely competitive global market. The risks and potential rewards are great. A successful product could see production volumes in the millions of units per year, while a failure could spell disaster for a company with thousands of development hours at risk.

As the pressure to get products to market faster continues to increase, embedded systems are growing more sophisticated and complex. It now takes longer than ever to complete new designs. A 2005 Embedded Market Study by CMP Media indicates that more than half of all projects released are at least three months late and that the average time to complete a new design has reached 15 months. Most embedded project failures cite overall complexity and inadequate or changing specifications as reasons.

To help design teams tackle an increasingly complex job and get products to market more quickly and reliably, virtual instrumentation technology is evolving to provide a comprehensive set of tools for embedded system design, prototyping and deployment. National Instruments' LabVIEW high-level graphical programming language and PC-based commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) hardware can assist with every stage of developmentfrom the earliest stages of design and simulation, to prototyping the system with real-world I/O signals and hardware, to deploying the embedded software on a chosen processor target.

To manage more complicated design requirements, design teams are spending more time on software development and switching to more sophisticated processors. The CMP Media report states that the main processor in about half of all designs is now a 32bit device rather than an 8- or 16bit device. This trend towards 32bit microprocessors makes it easier to use codes created with the help of high-level design tools since 32bit devices have a large instruction set that is more like a PC. By combining design, prototyping and deployment technology in a single graphical programming toolchain, NI LabVIEW speeds development for a wide variety of embedded processing devices. This article explores key LabVIEW 8 tools and capabilities for accelerating embedded system design.

Embedded system design is a multidimensional process that involves electrical, software and mechanical engineering. For example, a modern photocopier is an advanced machine that includes hundreds of sensors, dozens of actuators, and a variety of software subsystems such as control loops, networking and self-diagnostics. To simulate the behavior of this complex system, engineers can use native LabVIEW system identification, simulation and control design capabilities to create a model and develop control algorithms. LabVIEW also provides interoperability with a variety of third-party tools for circuit design, simulation, mechanical/CAD and embedded software development. Depending on the target, LabVIEW applications can include text-based C code, VHDL, MathScript or DLL calls.

NI's embedded, LabVIEW-based PAC

Signal processing and digital filter design are key embedded system technologies because they are necessary to derive meaningful information from sensors. Real-world sensors encode information in complex signals. For example, the position and speed of a paper roller might be transmitted in the voltage waveforms of a sine-cosine encoder. For reliable control of paper tension in the photocopier, the sensor interface subsystem must accurately interpret these signals and correct for noise, attenuation and other practical issues.

Prototyping is the process of taking algorithms and embedded code developed during the design stage and connecting them to the real-world system and environment.

Prototyping helps get new designs to market more quickly and reliably because you can begin more important engineering work earlier in the process and assist teams in refining goals and requirements.

LabVIEW makes it easier than ever to connect algorithms and logic to real I/O signals because it includes built-in support for virtually any type of sensor or actuator. In addition to traditional PC-based I/O modules, FPGA-based intelligent data acquisition (DAQ) devices are increasing in popularity for prototyping. Engineers can customize intelligent DAQ devices to perform the type of I/O and signal processing operations found in very specialized hardware devices.

Deployment is one of the most challenging parts of the development process because it involves combining all of the design components into an integrated working system that must be robust, cost-effective and reproducible in high volumes. Traditionally, engineers had to rewrite most of the software from the design and prototyping stages in the low-level syntax of the embedded device. Portability also was a major challenge for low-level code. Now, engineers can easily move the same LabVIEW graphical source (G code) among embedded targets. Design engineers can also translate LabVIEW G code to ANSI C for portability into any third-party toolchain. The new LabVIEW Embedded Development Module takes this a step further by opening the native code generation and cross-compilation engines so advanced developers can create board support packages for any microprocessor and OS.

LabVIEW provides an array of COTS hardware targets that engineers can use as OEM-ready subsystems in embedded designs. NI and third-party vendors such as Analog Devices have performed extensive validation and testing on these OEM-ready hardware targets. LabVIEW also provides specialized cross-compilation, linking, and debugging engines for each target.

Graphical system design
The NI graphical system design platform combines LabVIEW programming with COTS measurement and embedded hardware targets to help development teams design, prototype and deploy systems more quickly and reliably. By embracing PC-based technology, these tools make it easier to connect design and simulation code to real-world signals. As the list of OEM-ready embedded targets grows, LabVIEW developers can benefit from an increasingly automated development process.

- Brian MacCleery
Embedded and Control Senior Product Manager
National Instruments

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