NI Flexes Its Test And Measurement Muscles With New Product Releases At NI Connect

By Patrick Moorhead - July 12, 2023

This year’s NI Connect event showcased how effectively NI is plugging its test and measurement business into some of the most important trends across the tech landscape. Two big new product launches—Software-Defined Battery Lab and SystemLink Enterprise—improve the company’s ability to service the market for advanced electric batteries and help them intelligently manage their test and measurement operations into a strategic advantage. NI is also bullish about unlocking new capabilities by integrating AI into its products.

All of this is happening as we wait for the completion of Emerson’s acquisition of NI, which was announced a couple of months ago. I think the future looks bright for NI today as a freestanding company once brought under Emerson’s industrial umbrella. Let’s dig into some specifics to see if NI is firing on all cylinders.

Why the Software-Defined Battery Lab is about more than EVs

As I listened to the different presentations during NI Connect and followed up in private talks with leaders from the company, I was struck by how deeply NI has thought through the needs of its users. The company has been around for more than 40 years now, and it has succeeded in the PC days, the Internet era and now the age of AI by staying very close to its customers. Each time I hear NI people talk about their business, it confirms that NI has a level of understanding of what goes on in industrial labs, factories and clean rooms that can’t be faked.

My conversation with CEO Eric Starkloff about the new Software-Defined Battery Lab was a case in point. Starkloff has spent lots of time with customers who run battery operations so large that they have to coordinate with local power utilities not to shut down the electrical grid. The new product is being deployed in validation labs for the batteries used in electric vehicles, which of course represents a major growth segment.

It’s no accident that the Software-Defined Battery Lab borrows from the concept of software-defined vehicles such as Tesla. As he pointed out in his opening remarks at NI Connect, Starkloff believes that the software-defined approach makes each Tesla car a little bit better than its internal-combustion competition but a different category of product altogether.

In the case of the Battery Lab, NI aims to change the game for EV makers and their battery suppliers by significantly reducing time-to-market and the cost of production while improving outright performance for batteries. The software-defined aspect of it means that battery makers can harvest a wealth of data (more on that in a minute) to optimize design and production. This extends to remanufacturing, which I think will only become more important as sustainability concerns grow and the EVs on the road age out in increasing numbers.

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Starkloff says that batteries have become the most critical component of EVs because “the battery is what defines the performance and range [of the car] and the cost—the biggest cost component of the car.” That’s driving a lot of consumer decisions about which EVs to buy, and therefore a lot of engineering decisions about how to improve the quality of batteries. NI’s products are also instrumental in performing extended lifecycle testing for batteries to reduce the likelihood of future recalls. The company also continues moving into adjacent areas of the value chain by helping customers with test and measurement for the battery cells, but at the pack and module level.

While the big volumes for batteries are in automotive, NI is also pursuing other applications in charging infrastructure, grid storage and gigafactories. In all of these cases, the Software-Defined Battery Lab works on top of other NI testing products to improve not just specific technical measurements, but the whole workflow of production.

SystemLink Enterprise manages entire lab infrastructures

That holistic workflow view applies even more with SystemLink Enterprise, which grows out of years of investment by NI. Industrial and tech customers have traditionally managed their labs and production environments system by system. Starkloff told me that the status quo for these customers has been to rely on “their own knowledge, intuition, simple scheduling tools and things like that to think about the lab as a whole.”

The problem is that we’re talking about environments with hundreds of different systems running, often across thousands of test nodes. That’s a ton of complexity to get a handle on, and the intuitive approach that Starkloff described leaves a lot to be desired regarding efficiency, effectiveness and the ability to plan.

That’s where SystemLink comes in. NI has long been one of the best companies in the world for harvesting and managing data—the hard data that affects the real-world performance of their customers’ products and labs. The really smart thing the company has done over the years is to continue to level up what it doeswith that data. It’s one thing to test a widget accurately; it’s something else again to harness test data across countless inputs and make sense of it in ways that help you monitor and manage an entire process or, even better, an entire lab.

By centralizing and standardizing how test systems and their data are managed, SystemLink Enterprise helps companies improve system health, deploy new software across multiple systems at once, track asset utilization, monitor test performance, administer role-based access, enable data analysis in a common format and automate reports. As a bonus, it’s all built on a Kubernetes architecture, meaning it integrates seamlessly with today’s hybrid IT environments, very much including multi-cloud deployments.

That’s more than just a laundry list of features: it’s a recipe for intelligent, comprehensive management of test and measurement processes. You can imagine how having that kind of unified data view could transform the way you carry out, for example, predictive maintenance of your equipment. But it extends across every area of product testing and production. Ultimately, it means that manufacturing companies of all types can spend more of their energy on evaluating data insights to not only improve specific products or processes, but their whole operational approach.

As Starkloff told me, “We’re not selling an individual measurement anymore. We’re selling a customer a standardized automation platform for their lab, and then similarly in production.” This is an approach that’s been reinforced by NI’s successful record of expanding its technical capabilities both by organic internal development and by selective acquisitions.

Early success in applying AI to test and measurement

I think the same approach is going to continue with NI’s embrace of artificial intelligence, especially generative AI (GAI). Starkloff made the point that NI has a track record from its earliest days of using transformative technologies—the PC, the internet and so on—to extend the power of test and measurement. He thinks it will be no different with AI as a means to greater automation in testing. “We’ve been moving pretty quick on the integration of generative AI with our tools,” he told me, adding that the early results he’s seen have been “a little bit mind-blowing.”

Still, the company isn’t jumping into GAI because it happens to be the flavor of the month in tech. As Starkloff put it, “We’re pretty pragmatic, right? Our customers have to be necessarily pragmatic . . . And so, we share the view that this is not just a flashy demo. It has real utility, and the amount of utility is opening up quickly.”

Early results have been very promising, and at NI Connect CTO Thomas Benjamin said that NI is developing an AI-driven assistant that could help automate writing new test processes in the company’s LabView product.

Emerson acquisition reinforces the importance of test and measurement

As for the impending acquisition, Emerson has said exactly what you’d want to hear about its decision to buy NI. Emerson’s leadership is moving the big industrial company into test and marketing because they see it as a sector with the kind of growth trend that they’re looking for. That plus NI’s long record of success prompted Emerson to put forward a bid that values NI at a nice premium for shareholders.

Emerson has also said it intends to deploy even more capital into test and measurement, with NI functioning as a sort of “anchor store” as Emerson builds out in this sector. In fact, Emerson believes that test and measurement will be the fastest-growing part of its portfolio, with more acquisitions to come. And in case you’re wondering, Emerson does have the kind of cash on hand to make that happen.

What NI’s success says about tech as a whole

The planned acquisition by Emerson speaks to the importance of test and measurement, but it goes beyond that. What NI has been doing so effectively is to use its core strengths in test and measurement—and handling the data that those functions generate—to drive automation and process optimization for its customers. Emerson is making a smart bet with NI, and the premium it’s willing to pay shows the enduring value of truly intelligent test and measurement.

NI’s ability to execute in delivering that value is demonstrated by its two big new product launches, both of which I believe will be drivers for growth. And that’s before we get to AI-enhanced testing, which is only just getting started, but which stands to bring new waves of value to every corner of the tech world.

When I talked with Starkloff, he looked back on his history with NI in light of the Emerson acquisition and mused, “You know, ten years ago, other companies weren’t looking to get into test and measurement.” But now, as an independent company and a key part of Emerson’s strategy, NI is positioned in a sweet spot for ongoing growth and innovation.

Patrick Moorhead

Patrick founded the firm based on his real-world world technology experiences with the understanding of what he wasn’t getting from analysts and consultants. Ten years later, Patrick is ranked #1 among technology industry analysts in terms of “power” (ARInsights)  in “press citations” (Apollo Research). Moorhead is a contributor at Forbes and frequently appears on CNBC. He is a broad-based analyst covering a wide variety of topics including the cloud, enterprise SaaS, collaboration, client computing, and semiconductors. He has 30 years of experience including 15 years of executive experience at high tech companies (NCR, AT&T, Compaq, now HP, and AMD) leading strategy, product management, product marketing, and corporate marketing, including three industry board appointments.