How software-defined instrumentation is changing testing and measurement [Q&A]

Software testing

The testing and measurement industry like any other is looking towards digital transformation projects, but it’s a sector that in the past has been slow to adapt.

Software-defined instrumentation looks set to change that and drive transformation efforts forward. We spoke to Daniel Shaddock, the co-founder and CEO of Liquid Instruments and a professor of physics at the Australian National University, to find out more.

BN: How has the test and measurement space evolved over the last few years?

DS: Over the last several decades, the test and measurement industry has focused on developing hardware tailored for a specific instrument and then layering software on top -- an approach that’s at odds with the recent exponential increase in digital transformation initiatives in the high-tech sectors it serves.

Many users in this space only have access to conventional test equipment, which often consists of bulky, expensive boxes designed to perform one function. This disjointed approach has given us a tremendous opportunity to modernize how engineers, scientists, and professors approach test and measurement by making it more software-centric, which in turn makes it more flexible, affordable, and efficient.

Advances in industries like aerospace and defense, telecommunications, and education are forcing test and measurement equipment manufacturers to evolve in kind. Budgetary and development timeline pressures, coupled with new technologies, are driving these key sectors to demand more from their test equipment. This means that solutions providers must develop more innovative, efficient, and user-friendly tools to meet customer needs. The test and measurement industry is evolving to offer next-generation, software-defined solutions that allow users to access multiple instruments simultaneously, easily integrate functions to perform complex tests, and add more functionality to their equipment through software upgrades as their needs evolve.

BN: You're active in both the academic and commercial worlds. How do these areas complement each other?

DS: As a kid, I wasn't very interested in science or engineering. It was an engaging high school science teacher who inspired me to study physics. That experience showed me the true impact that teachers can have on the lives of their students. Since I studied physics throughout my higher education, I understand what STEM students need and like when it comes to the equipment and tools they have to use in the lab. I also saw the damage that a poor lab experience could inflict on students. My experiences as both a student and professor of physics have given me insight to help tomorrow’s scientists and engineers understand the next-gen tools that will enable them to deliver world-changing breakthroughs. This knowledge has inspired me and the whole team at Liquid to come up with better solutions to replace outdated tools and I hope it will lead more students to pursue careers in science and technology.

BN: How has the transition from hardware to software technology modernized and streamlined the test and measurement industry?

DS: While software-defined instrumentation has offered a more versatile approach to test and measurement for more than a decade now, recent advances have greatly accelerated its adoption, elevating it from a niche approach to a professional-grade solution that offers more efficient, affordable, and user-friendly test tools for modern learning and research. Field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) are now much larger and faster, enabling more capable and sophisticated tools that are software defined but hardware accelerated. Next-generation devices now integrate a broad range of instruments -- from benchtop essentials like oscilloscopes and spectrum analyzers to advanced tools like laser lock boxes and lock-in amplifiers -- into one piece of flexible hardware. Since the software is upgradable, users can access the latest enhancements via a simple download. Instead of buying and replacing bulky, expensive equipment to accommodate specific experiments, software-defined instrumentation allows users to invest in one tool for maximum longevity and functionality across multiple experiments. With powerful FPGAs, software-defined devices can now leverage massively parallel, low-latency, real-time processing with integration with conventional analog and digital inputs and outputs. Compared with traditional equipment that was designed for standalone, on-site use, today’s devices are designed to be network connected, allowing for data sharing between multiple systems and users -- a crucial capability for efficient collaboration across distributed teams.

BN: What does digital transformation mean for innovation and change in engineering?

DS: I like to think of test and measurement as the technology behind technology. As core industries such as aerospace and defense, automotive, and semiconductor continue feeling pressure to embrace digital tools and technologies, the test and measurement sector must match this pace of change and innovation. In other words, since technology has become so advanced so quickly, technology developers need to upgrade their approaches to tech development, including their test equipment, to stay competitive and productive. Simply put, the complexity of technology and speed of innovation today have made it impossible for engineers to continue testing devices the same way without being left behind. Digital transformation is necessary to help engineers take advantage of advances in automation and AI to develop smarter test strategies. Digital transformation means different things for different industries. In test, it means making the transition to software-defined instrumentation.

BN: What have you learned while developing an innovative product and leading a tech startup to secure funding and steady revenue growth in a competitive and challenging economic climate?

DS: When developing a product or building a startup, it's important to be curious and ask questions about better ways of doing things. You are really behind the eight-ball in so many ways, so doing the same thing as industry incumbents is not a recipe for success. One of my favorite techniques is to focus on identifying and then amplifying any small sense of frustration you experience as a user of the technology or product you’re trying to develop. Others are likely to share those frustrations, so they can often provide a big clue about how to improve things.

Finding a talented team that shares your values is also critically important. I think my experiences at NASA (Daniel was formerly a Director’s Fellow at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory) ,and as a university professor -- where it's important to pick the right objectives, plan the technology development, and communicate to a range of stakeholders why an idea is important -- prepared me well to run a startup. Working with investors from a range of backgrounds has been really interesting, but by far the toughest and most important crowd to convince is your users. They keep you honest, and they can't be fooled. Our ideas, technology, and traction have helped us attract a generous amount of funding, improve our products, and steadily grow revenue, despite the uncertain economic conditions in recent years. Ultimately, when it comes to leading a startup, it's important to think differently about how we serve our users and not be held back by the way things have traditionally been done. By focusing on the things that really matter and avoiding getting distracted by the small stuff, we can continue creating better test equipment and delivering real value to users across the world.

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