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Automation Technologies 5/2014

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Automation Technologies 5/2014

sensors and Measurement

sensors and Measurement Find the software tool that fits your task Simon Hogg A myriad of different possible software solutions exist for any given task and it‘s not unusual for several different implementations of essentially the same solution to compete with each other. Text editors, web browsers, photo editors, programming languages – the list goes on, but the soft-ware you choose to use says a lot about you and what you care about. The world of software is often a funny place. It is very rare that for any given task you have just one option. A myriad of different possible solutions exist for any given task and it‘s not unusual for several different implementations of essentially the same solution to compete with each other. Mac OS X, Linux, and Windows are all very capable desktop operating systems that would each meet the vast majority of the needs of most computer users. Yet people often identify as “Mac” or “Windows” users as if it was part of their identity (so much so that Apple produced a series of “I‘m a Mac” commercials, pitting a hip young man against a bumbling aging “PC”). Text editors, web browsers, photo editors, programming languages – the list goes on, but the software you choose to use says a lot about you and what you care about. Weighing up the various options All modern test and measurement systems have software components and the software you choose should line up with your (or your project/companies) priorities. The most effective engineers are able to use different software approaches in order to pick the best tool for the job at hand, while other engineers have a “go to” tool that, even though it might not be the best tool for the job, functions well due to the user’s mastery of it. Then there are the engineers who suffer from trying to fit square pegs into round holes. They make poor choices due to stubbornness, ignorance, or misplaced faith and are often the cause of missed deadlines, poor results, and ongoing maintenance problems. Author: Simon Hogg, Senior Product Manager for LabView, National Instruments, Munich, Germany

sensors and Measurement It can be helpful to think of the many software options engineers are faced with as one of three broad categories: n fixed function software applications n general purpose programming languages n Software that combines elements of both next page Fixed function software applications – easy, but restrictive The first, and by far the most popular category of software are fixed function software applications. This is software that is sold or otherwise distributed with a job to do and only one way to get it done. As a user you evaluate the different options and pick one that has the closest feature set to the features you desire and you have to live with the fact that you might not get everything you want. For software like office suites, web browsers, and photo editors this approach makes perfect sense. Millions of people out there share essentially the same goals and one product can conceivably meet most of their common needs. The upside to buying software off-the-shelf (or “off the internet” as is most often the case) is substantial. It is much faster to evaluate and purchase something that already exists rather than specify and create something completely new. As an end-user you are sheltered from the risk of software development such as an older OS being retired, or a new standard being adopted. If one of these technological shifts occurs you simply pay to upgrade your software or move to a vendor that better meets your needs. Your cost to switch is much less than if you had developed the software yourself, and it’s usually safe to assume the vendor can distribute the costs of maintenance across a large user-base. Being one of many users of identical software also has the advantage of existing training materials you can leverage to get you and your team up to speed quickly. A spirit of compromise is required The downside to this category of software is that you are often stuck with only the features that are available on the market. For software targeted at the mass market, such as operating systems and office suites, there are a number of options with expansive feature sets and impressive quality (or at least offer frequent patches and updates). For more specialized tasks, 01 LabView is an intuitive and graphical programming language that abstracts the complexity of developing measurement, monitoring, and control systems the quantity and quality of those options goes down as the size of the market gets smaller. Software vendors have to make enough money from their customers to cover the cost of designing, developing, testing, and distributing the software, so naturally tools that can be profitably sold to the most people sees the most investment, resulting in higher quality. For highly specialized tasks it may be that no off-theshelf software does exactly what you need and you end up having to fill in parts of the process with manual labor. This can be really frustrating when you factor in the added costs, errors, and overall inconvenience that occurs when you have a person doing what the software should have been helping you do in the first place. Making up for the deficiencies of inflexible or incompatible software is one of the biggest hidden costs in today’s computer dominated work-place. How many technical man hours have been wasted trying to convert data between proprietary formats or manually sequencing operations that ought to be easily automated? Product range for tasks of measuring and testing technology Compared to operating systems and office suites, the market for test and measurement software is relatively small. This means that there aren’t a lot of highquality software products available that are likely to AUTOMATION TECHNOLOGIES 5/2014

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