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Check it Out: The Complete Guide to Building an Instrument Control System

By Anthony J. Lockwood

Dear Desktop Engineering Reader:

National InstrumentsI was going to start this Check It Out using the words “traditional approaches to instrument control applications” but then it hit me that the words “traditional” and “instrument” probably have different meanings depending upon your chronological progression. See, PC-based instrument control using modular hardware and virtual instrument software has been around a long time, even if there’s something new about it every day. And today’s stand-alone benchtop units are generally stuffed with computer readiness so that they can be integrated into automated measurement systems. There’s even a generation or two of engineers equally at ease with virtual instruments and benchtop units, making each their traditional tools of the trade.

Still, let’s define instrument control as a PC-based approach that combines programmable software and hardware connectivity to automate measurement acquisition from instrumentation. An instrument control system is made up of instrumentation, connectivity hardware, and a computer with programmable software.

None of that, however, makes it easier to build your PC-based instrument control system. In fact, the component options for designing your measurement control system are seemingly endless. You have to sort through and identify the right combinations of general-purpose, modular hardware as well as bus types, drivers, computer platforms, and so forth – a daunting project. And while some of the greatest fun in engineering is piecing something together to see if it works, some of the least fun in engineering is having your corporate masters breathing down your neck demanding that you finish the project on time and on budget as you try to piece something together to see if it works.

So, how do you design and build your instrument control system project on time and on budget? Today’s Check It Out write-up provides a ton of guidance to help you spec out your system. Called “The Complete Guide to Building an Instrument Control System,” this series of PDFs – eight documents/40 pages in all – takes you through the steps. Each PDF, which range in size from four to seven pages, focuses in on a single topic. The topics are computer, hardware bus, application software, driver software, analysis tools, visualization, data storage format, and reporting tools. The series is a product of National Instruments, but its value goes across the spectrum without marketing baloney.

Each PDF adheres to an identical format, starting with its “How to Choose the Right ]topic]” title. Discussions begin with a broad definition of the topic at hand followed by a range of major considerations posed as questions. This Q&A presentation format is both practical and straightforward. Here are a couple of random questions: “Do I need to visualize my data online, offline, or both?” and “Can my storage format handle my volume and streaming needs?” (At times, considerations are followed by links to external sources of further information.) Each consideration is linked to its discussion area in the document.

The discussions themselves are succinct, yet thorough, and illustrated to enhance the discussion – not to gussy up the doc. The strength of this Q&A format is twofold: One, you can easily leverage it to build your own to-do checklist. Two, you can use it as a quick reference for fast answers to things you never quite remember or understood. That you can jump among eight distinct topics and within a given document is an extra benefit of this suite.

“The Complete Guide to Building an Instrument Control System” is a quick download, and it comes as a single folder of PDFs, enabling you to send different team members the one document that matches their assignments. All in all, this is a resource that belongs in your library. Highly recommended.

Thanks, Pal. – Lockwood

Anthony J. Lockwood
Editor at Large, Desktop Engineering

The Complete Guide to Building an Instrument Control System

About Anthony J. Lockwood

Anthony J. Lockwood is Desktop Engineering's Editor-at-Large. Contact him via de-editors@deskeng.com.
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