Modern factory support and production test systems must be general purpose, remotely programmable, and flexible enough to handle a variety of input ranges and types, speeds, and functions. In addition, many in-process inspection stations now include high-speed digital signal analysis and video product analysis. In order to present the latest trends, I asked two experts from the Intel® Intelligent Systems Alliance to share their views on the management and optimization of production test systems. Here are their responses:
How does the latest wave of multi-core processors affect industrial design and production optimization?
Dr. Yong Luo, General Manager of the Embedded Computer Segment at ADLINK Technology: The industrial design & production really benefit significantly from the latest wave of multi-core processors, not only from the unprecedented performance packed in the multi-core processors, but also from the potential of managing the power consumption through new techniques such as dynamic core allocation etc, beyond the traditional speed-step technology.
Sarah Schlonsky, Product Marketing Manager for PXI Embedded Controllers at National Instruments: With the number of processor cores on a chip quickly increasing, engineers and scientists are more capable through new techniques to make the most of this hardware. Beyond performance benefits, multi-core processors also enable applications to take advantage of virtualization technology. To adapt to evolving applications, NI Real-Time Hypervisor software enables the consolidation of systems by running NI LabVIEW Real-Time OS and Windows or Linux on a single controller through the virtualization technology. For example, one core of a quad core system can be used for NI LabVIEW Real-Time OS and the remaining three cores could be used for Windows. The cost of hardware and footprint of system can be reduced, as well as more capabilities packed into a consolidated system by leveraging NI Real-Time Hypervisor in an industrial application.
What software tools and development aids are available for factory automation and industrial management projects?
Sarah Schlonsky, National Instruments: Traditional sequential language applications must be explicitly broken up into separate pieces, or threads, to run in parallel on multi-core processors. Although the concept of threads is straightforward, working with them can be time-consuming and tedious. Each thread must be carefully managed, and data accessed by threads is very susceptible to race conditions if not protected carefully.
NI LabVIEW system design software implements a dataflow programming paradigm. LabVIEW applications inherently run in parallel where possible and without requiring specific multi-threading programming techniques. The dataflow nature of LabVIEW means that anytime there is a branch in the data flow, or a parallel process on the block diagram, the underlying LabVIEW compiler creates a thread to execute the code in parallel. These independent pieces of code are assigned to run in a fixed number of threads that LabVIEW automatically creates. This process helps an application take advantage of multi-core processors and avoids creating too many threads, which can increase switching overhead and inefficient execution.
With cloud computing and connectivity dominating embedded designs, what security precautions are available to prevent unauthorized access?
Dr. Yong Luo, ADLINK Technology: Widely connected devices and cloud-based embedded design solutions have certainly improved the industry efficiency and automation, but also introduced security challenges together with the net connectivity. This threat never existed before for stand-alone systems. All kinds of software/hardware-based security solutions have to be implemented to prevent attacks and breach and thus increase the system load and cost. The newly-introduced McAfee “White-list” solution seems like an attractive and efficient solution for embedded design and industry due to their nature of narrowly-focused application targets (as compared to generic internet devices).
Sarah Schlonsky, National Instruments: Intel® multi-core processors feature Intel® vPro Technology which contains a collection of hardware technologies that enable management features independent of the operating system (OS) and many security features. These technologies are designed into the PC’s chipset and other system hardware making it less vulnerable to the standard software threats that affect an OS or software application.
From the software standpoint, an initial consideration during embedded design projects should be with the operating system: evaluating a Windows operating system or a real time operating system. Real time operating systems, such as NI LabVIEW Real-Time, can guarantee time-critical tasks are precisely executed and are not as susceptible to everyday software threats. A real time operating system can be designed to run critical applications reliably and deterministic as compared to a Windows operating system. A Windows operating system’s primary task is to maintain user responsiveness.
What are the technical challenges that designers face as they implement high speed image analysis systems for production inspection applications?
Dr. Yong Luo, ADLINK Technology: While the new Intel® Media Software Development Kit (Intel® Media SDK) is developing along the right direction to replace the dedicated DSP solution for video encoding/transcoding, the software performance for image analysis and processing on Intel® Architecture (IA) is still far from enough to handle high resolution and high-speed image processing in this area, as the resolution, accuracy and processing speed requirements are getting higher. Therefore, a hybrid solution mixing IA (mostly for control and applications) and DSP (mostly for high-speed and high-resolution image analysis) might still be needed. This certainly is still a challenge for both designers and software developers.
Sarah Schlonsky, National Instruments: As instrumentation for high speed image analysis expands its capability with incredibly fast sampling rates and high bandwidths, the bus that interfaces the instrument with the PC is often overlooked. The throughput capacity of a communication bus can directly impact the instrumentation’s realizable bandwidth. This is known as bottlenecking a system, which results in an overall impact to test times. More demanding applications can be solved as PC-based measurement hardware continues to adopt progressively higher performance data buses.
The evolution to the PCI Express/PXI Express bus is enabling even faster data transfers through direct data links. Implementing streaming from the instrument, through the PC, and onto a hard disk increases the available memory of the instrument from megabytes to terabytes. PXI platforms are utilizing the high-bandwidth PCI Express bus architecture to effortlessly stream data to and from a hard disk at rates high enough to support the advanced bandwidth instrumentation. With increasingly faster read/write speeds and increased storage capacity, data streaming enables faster sampling rates over longer testing periods than ever before.
As you look ahead, which technologies and applications present the most interesting opportunities for industrial designers?
Dr. Yong Luo, ADLINK Technology: Personally, I believe the 4-in-1 strategy is developing in the right direction, but how far and how broad the Intel® Data Plane Development kit (Intel® DPDK) and the Intel® Media SDK can go still remains to be seen. It is definitely a very interesting trend, but the industry would love to see a set of real hybrid hardware chips from Intel® successfully replacing the need of most DSPs and dedicated packet processing processors, converging all of them into the most popular x86 programming model. The key here is not just the replacement of hardware, but really to replace the costly and complicated hybrid programming model.
Sarah Schlonsky, National Instruments: PCI Express Gen 4 and FPGA capabilities are the most promising technologies looking forward. Instrumentation will continue to evolve and the amount of data that needs to be passed to and from the instrument will continue to rise. PCI-SIG continues to evolve the PCI Express standard with an expectation that the PCI Express 4.0 specification will improve the bandwidth capabilities of the bus enabling even more applications.
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National Instruments and ADLINK Technology are Associate members of the by Intel® Intelligent Systems Alliance.