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National Instruments LabVIEW:

Ultimate Software for Engineering Education

Olfa Boubaker
National Institute of Applied Sciences and Technology, Tunis, Tunisia

National Instruments LabVIEW software/ hardware


Abstract - National Instruments LabVIEW is considered,
is considered nowadays as the most efficient programming
nowadays, as the most professional software, among others,
environment, among others, for virtual reality model design,
for data acquisition, data analysis, real time and remote
data acquisition, data analysis, instrument control and also
control. This paper presents, in details, the key motivations for
web-based remote control. Assuming that the most of the
the use of such virtual reality programming environment by
engineering problems deal with physical variables such as
many prestigious universities and explains the main
temperature, speed, position, current, voltage, pressure, force,
reflections on how this software gives a valuable application
torque... LabVIEW software with its suitable of data
for engineering training. A bibliographical review of
acquisition system gives us a visual look to all these quantities
numerous applications in a general framework of engineering
[5]-[6]. Furthermore, most of experiences can be made
education will be presented and classified according to
available to the remote area user via Internet link or satellite
different engineering disciplines. Several experiences dealing
link [7].
with remote control laboratories are also summarized with
This paper presents the key motivations for the use of
emphasis on the practical design implementation. The trends
that system and explains, in details, the main reflections on
of introducing a course within the new curriculum of the
how such software/hardware environment gives an effective
National Institute of Applied Sciences and Technology at
and efficient application for engineering training.
Tunisia, aiming to improve the technical skills of engineering
The paper will be organized as follows: In the second section
students and enhance their recruitment criteria, will be finally
LabVIEW software/Hardware environment will be presented.
addressed.
A bibliographical review of different applications using
LabVIEW programming environment in a general framework
Keywords: Engineering education, LabVIEW software,
of engineering education will be presented and classified
LabVIEW hardware, virtual reality, web-based remote
according to different disciplines in the third section. The
control.
trends and the perspectives of introducing a course within the
1 Introduction new curriculum of the National Institute of Applied Sciences
and Technology (Tunisia) aiming to prepare students to be
The evolution of engineering education is related to National Instruments certified will be finally addressed in the
advances on technology, theoretical design methods and their section IV.
real-time implementation [1]. It is also important to note that
the evolution of the engineering theory is closely related to the 2 Software/Hardware Environment
engineering education [2]. The next generations of students
must then receive the scientific and pedagogical supports LabVIEW system is a data acquisition and
required to verify conventional techniques, develop new tools programming environment that allows flexible acquisition and
and verify their real implementation. Computing and processing of analog and digital data [8]. The LabVIEW
communication technologies are useful tools to improve such environment [9] contains a wide-ranging set of tools for
educational strategies. They can provide to the engineering acquiring, analyzing, displaying, and storing data. LabVIEW
education system a significant impact. However, the quick software can be used to communicate with hardware devices
rate of change in the fields of technology poses particular such as data acquisition, vision, motion control devices,
problems for engineering institutions. Customized engineering GPIB, PXI, VXI, RS-232, and RS-484 devices. LabVIEW
test systems have in many times a number of limitations such has also built-in features for connecting applications to the
as inflexible and unfriendly programming structure, excessive Web using the LabVIEW Web Server and software standards
cost, hardware limitations, and incompatibility issues [3]. To such as TCP/IP networking and ActiveX.
realize more efficient and more user-friendly systems without The main characteristic that distinguishes LabVIEW
using very costly custom-written software and tools, the key from other data acquisition programs is its highly modular
solution is to integrate in engineering institutions virtual and graphical programming language, "G," and a great library of
remote laboratories [4]. functions [8].
LabVIEW environment is famous for its flexibility, There are two general types of software bugs that may
reusability, self-documentation modularity, multi-platform be used, those that prevent the program from running and
portability, and compatibility with existing code and with those that generate bad results or incorrect behavior [9]-[13].
different interface hardware [3]. LabVIEW software is
distinguished by its extendible libraries and its multi-
advanced debugging features. It is also characterized by an
intuitive Graphical User Interface (GUI) and Multimedia
capabilities for future developments. Furthermore, it is
possible to create stand-alone executables and share libraries.

2.1 LabVIEW Software


LabVIEW programs [9]-[13] are called virtual
instruments (VIs) because their appearance and operation
imitate physical instruments. A LabVIEW virtual instrument
consists of a front panel which is considered as a user
interface, a block diagram which is considered as a LabVIEW Fig.1. LabVIEW virtual graphical programming environment
program and a connector pane which is a set of terminals on
the icon that corresponds to the controls and indicators of a 2.2 LabVIEW modules and toolkits
VI, similar to the parameter list of a function call in text-based
programming languages (see Fig.1). The NI LabVIEW Modules and Toolkits are the add-on
In the front panel, the user can insert the inputs (sliders, software tools that extend LabVIEW graphical programming
knobs, values entered from the keyboard, push buttons, for specific applications. More than 25 LabVIEW modules
selector switches) and the outputs (indicators, LEDs, graphs, and toolkits exist [14]. For example, NI Modules and Toolkits
strip charts, sounds). The Controls palette contains the created for Embedded Design integrate:
controls and indicators used to create the front panel. Block Real-Time Module
diagrams integrate terminals, subVIs, functions, constants, NI Real-Time Execution TraceToolkit
structures, and wires, which transfer data among other block FPGA Module
diagram objects. Nodes are objects on the block diagram that Microprocessor SDK
have inputs and/or outputs and perform operations when a VI Statechart Module
runs. Nodes can be functions, subVIs, or structures. A subVI Mobile Module
is similar to a function in a text-based programming language. DSP Module
Every VI displays an icon in the upper right corner of the Embedded Module for ARM Microcontrollers
front panel window and block diagram window [9]. The Whereas NI Modules and Toolkits for Control design and
Functions palette contains the VIs, functions and constants Simulation integrate:
used to create the block diagram. Control Design and Simulation Module
The most common execution structures are While
PID and Fuzzy Logic Toolkit
Loops, For Loops and Case Structures which can be used to
Real-Time Module
run the same section of code multiple times or to execute a
Execution Trace Toolkit
different section of code based on some condition. LabVIEW
has other, more advanced types of execution structures such FPGA Module
as Event Structures used to handle interrupt driven tasks and Statechart Module
sequence structures used to force execution order. Shift Simulation Interface Toolkit
registers are used in loops to pass values from previous 2.3 LabVIEW Hardware and Data Acquisition
iterations through the loop to the next iteration. Tunnels are System
used to feed data into and out of structures. In LabVIEW
software, it is helpful to group data in arrays and clusters. LabVIEW integrates many thousands of hardware devices
Arrays mix data of the same data type into one data structure, which can be used with a single development environment. In
and clusters join data of multiple data types into one data addition to data acquisition hardware [15], further test,
structure. The progress of data from side to side the nodes measurement, and control hardware are offered [9]. Examples
determines the execution order of the VIs and functions on the include digital Multimeters, High-Speed Digitizers, RF Signal
block diagram. LabVIEW programs follow a dataflow model Analyzers, RF Signal Generators , signal Generators, High-
for running VIs. A block diagram node executes when it Speed Digital I/O, Switches, Programmable Power Supplies,
receives all required inputs. LabVIEW contains some Reconfigurable FPGA I/O, Motion Controllers and vision
powerful debugging tools. Systems
The components of a Data Acquisition System (see Fig.2) 2.4 NI Educational Laboratory Virtual
are:
Transducers/Sensors: Instrumentation Suite
A transducer or sensor converts a physical phenomenon into a National Instruments was developed an efficient platform
measurable electrical signal. Examples of transducers are for engineering education used by the leading international
thermocouples for temperature, strain gages for pressure companies and universities: the National Instruments
Signal Conditioning Educational Laboratory Virtual Instrumentation Suite (NI
The signal conditioning device maximizes the precision of a ELVIS). The NI ELVIS (see Fig.3) integrate a suite of 12
system, gives sensors the ability to work properly, and instruments in one compact form factor [16, 17, 18].
guarantees safety.
Data Acquisition Hardware
The data acquisition hardware is an interface device between
the computer and the outside world. It digitizes incoming
analog signals. It includes analog output, digital I/O,
counter/timers, and triggering and synchronization circuitry.
Driver and Application Software
There are two layers of software in a data acquisition
system: driver software and application software. Driver
software is the communication layer between the application
software and the hardware. The application layer is a
development environment in which a custom application is
built. Fig.3. Educational Laboratory Virtual Instrumentation Suite

Many modules are built on the ELVIS platform to teach


more specific disciplines, including circuit design,
instrumentation, control, microcontroller/embedded systems,
mechatronic, telecommunications

2.5 LabVIEW embedded Platforms


To reduce the cost and shortens time to design, prototype,
and deploy embedded systems, it is possible to take the
advantage of the NI embedded platforms [19]. There are three
Fig.2. Data Acquisition System deployment technologies:

LabVIEW driver software supplies seamless integration Unpackaged Embedded Systems


across multiple types of instruments, buses, and sensors, These systems have a variety of processor architectures to
including data acquisition devices, boxed instruments, choose from and a small set of operating system and I/O
modular instruments, motion controllers, motor drives, support. The software development tools for such systems are
machine vision, image processing hardware, wireless sensors, not integrated. The National Instruments NI Single-Board RIO
and field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) [9]. represents an example of an unpackaged embedded system
For example, the NI-DAQmx driver software can join (see Figure 4).
together more than 200 data acquisition devices in LabVIEW
on major buses and factors, including USB, PCI, PCI Express, Packaged embedded systems
PXI, PXI Express, wireless, and Ethernet. These systems are generally more expensive but they often
NI-DAQmx devices include MAX, a configuration and test come with integrated software development tools and a more
utility. MAX is used to Configure and test NI-DAQmx extensive set of integrated I/O options. The National
hardware and Create NI-DAQmx virtual channels that can be Instruments NI CompactRIO represents an example of an
referenced in any programming language. NI-DAQmx virtual unpackaged embedded system (see Fig. 5).
channels are used to map configuration information to
specified physical channels on NI-DAQmx devices. Virtual Industrial PCs
channels are used to configure input ranges and signal The PXI platform is an example of an industrial PC
conditioning parameters, convert sensor voltage measurements architecture. PXI is the open, PC-based platform for test,
into real-world engineering units, add signal conditioning measurement, and control. PXI provides a variety of
configuration apply user-defined scaling operations and processing and I/O options for embedded applications such as
creating NI-DAQmx tasks by adding timing, triggering, and multi-core processors, high-resolution DC measurements,
synchronization information [9]. digitizers, motion control...
Table 1. Multi-disciplinary applications of LabVIEW
disciplines references

Biomedical engineering [22]


Chemical and biotechnological engineering [23]
Environmental and ecological engineering. [24]
Aerospace and Mechanical engineering [25], [26]
Electro-Mechanical engineering [27]
Mechatronic engineering [28]
Robotics [29], [30], [31]
Control engineering [32], [33], [34]
Electronic engineering [35, [36]
Power electronics [37] [38]
Electrical machines [39] [40] [41]
Instrumentation [42]
Fig.4. NI Single-Board RIO: an unpackaged embedded
system
3.2 Remote Control Projects

Distance education as well as remote experimentation, is a


modern field that aims to deliver education to students who
are not physically present on their class or their tested
instrumentation [43]. Nowadays, many students and educators
communicate with the educational material through Internet-
based technologies. Remote access is increasingly simplified
and information is stored easily. Time savings, sharing
resources of expensive equipment and individual access to
experimentation are the main factors that motivate remote
laboratories over the world [44]-[47]. Some remote pioneered
Fig.5. CompactRIO packaged embedded System
projects using LabVIEW environment based on this idea are
described in [48]-[55].
FPGA technology can be used within industrial PCs. All
FPGAs within National Instruments products can be In such LabVIEW environment, the remote users can
programmed with the LabVIEW FPGA Module. interact with experiments through the Internet without
problems. In the friendly user interface, the distant user can
An example of a cost-effective fire suppression system for change system parameters and observe system response in
the main deck of FedEx Express aircraft using LabVIEW and textual, graphical, or video format. In addition, some remote
CompactRIO is found in [20]. laboratories incorporate a booking system, which enables
remote users to book experiments in advance [48].
The LabVIEW Robotics Starter Kit based on the sbRIO 3.3 LabVIEW within the New Curriculum of
9631 platform, which includes a Freescale MPC5200
processor, 110 digital lines, up to 32 analog outputs, four INSAT
analog inputs, and 32 industrial 24-V digital I/O is given in This section discusses the introduction of the LabVIEW-
[21]. based teaching/ learning tools within the new curriculum [56]
of INSAT launched in 2010 year. These activities will be
3 LabVIEW: A Multidisciplinary introduced in the second semester of the second year to the
three specializations (Mechatronic, Industrial and Systems
Software Engineering, Embedded system Engineering) offered to the
3.1 Multidisciplinary Laboratory Projects control and computer science engineering students. Since
LabVIEW is an interactive, graphical programming
Many prestigious universities and colleges, throughout the language that can be used to build sophisticated applications
world, that deliver undergraduate programmes in science and in a shorter time, the first objective of this course will be to
engineering are currently incorporating virtual instruments as improve the learning experience of undergraduate engineering
teaching, measurement and analysis tools for student learning. students and enhance their interest in a graphical-based
Table 1 shows a bibliographical review of the main computer language for data acquisition, data analysis, and real
applications using LabVIEW programming environment in a
time control.
general framework of engineering education. The references
are classified according to different disciplines.
4 Conclusion
LabVIEW is an exclusive programming environment for
data acquisition, data analysis, real time and remote control. It
gives engineering the ability to program their complex
monitoring applications with reducing time for development.
Teaching engineering using LabVIEW environment not only
improve their learning abilities in control monitoring but also
enhance their skills to create high-quality applications. Using
such common tools and platforms in engineering education
undoubtedly help educators to produce qualified engineers
who are ready for innovation in research and industry careers,
able to share results and collaborate with international
projects. Such an approach can certainly enhance recruitment
criteria for engineering job functions and improve the
countrys technical advantage.

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