Prototypes R us

National Instruments plays a quiet but critical role in the transformation of ideas into innovations.  Ideas and innovation are often confused–most popular and research attention goes to telling stories of how great ideas come into being.  But there's a big difference between an idea and its successful implementation somewhere.  anywhere.  And that difference is often measured in decades and millions.  Ideas are about what could be done, innovation is about getting it done.

Through the Entrepreneurship Academies, I get to see a lot of science and engineering talent developing some of the latest and greatest ideas using the, yes, latest and greatest in monitoring and controls technologies.  New ideas about real-time monitoring of carbon output in smoke stacks, mad-cow disease in slaughterhouses, mastistis in dairies, oil content in algae, tumor cells in surgery, and arsenic in drinking water, to name a very few.    The ideas are remarkable and at the academy we work with the researchers to understand how they can remain remarkable as they become businesses and enter the market: moving from what could be done to getting it done.

One of the central challenges facing researchers is transforming their benchtop ideas (usually one-offs) into alpha and beta prototypes that can be used in the field in trials–particularly as test and measurement equipment is expensive, cumbersome, and general purpose.

That's where National Instruments (NI) comes in.  I've been working and talking with them for a number of years now and the more I spend time with them the more I want to give up my day job and become one of their customers.  NI has built an incredibly strong business and even stronger community focused on making it possible for researchers to turn their ideas into reality, one step at a time.  They got started by connecting your PC (actually, it was a Mac, bless their hearts) to laboratory instruments.  Over time, they got better and better at that and, more recently, began to focus on the migration of ideas from laboratory experiments to actual production.  They've built a series of chipsets and systems that support migrating an idea from 1 unit to 10 to 100 to 1000's. 

Anyway, they've become to prototyping in hard-core science and engineering what foam core and the glue gun are to prototyping in design school.  And most recently, John Hanks, vice president of product marketing for data acquisition and industrial control, posted on their rules for prototyping (summarized here):

1 Recognize That Ideas Are Cheap.

2 Start with a Paper Design.

3 Put in Just Enough Work.

4 Anticipate for Multiple Options.

5 Design for Reuse in the Final Product.

6 Avoid Focusing on Cost Too Early.

7 Fight “Reversion to the Mean.”

8 Ensure You Can Demonstrate Your Prototype.