Sunday, July 22, 2012

TestStand (part 3 - Is it useful?)

As part of a project I completed for my previous company, I  learned NI TestStand and implemented it for a test station.  I started writing a few posts about that experience and my impressions of TestStand a year ago.  I'm finally getting around to finishing it, and this is the 3rd and last post.

Is it useful?

That's a big question.  I've talked with three different people who've used it at bigger companies.  All three liked how it worked.  Personally, I can only answer that question for startups.

First of all, I had a few specific complaints about it:
  • The database viewer was okay, but you couldn't look at stored procedures.  It seemed very "beta".
  • I couldn't open more than one workspace at a time.
  • The printing wasn't very friendly.  For example, I wanted to create a nice flowchart based off of the sequences/workspace.  I couldn't do it easily and needed to jump through hoops to "sort of" get what I wanted.
  • There's no support for Tortoise SVN (of course, I have that complaint about LabVIEW as well).

Now that I've gotten that off my chest, let me address the broader question.  Yes, it is useful in startup companies.  At all the startups I've been at, you start out developing small programs to do specific tasks.  But eventually you get to a certain point where:

  1. You hire technicians to run regular tests on your products.
  2. You need a way to quickly make modifications to those existing tests.
  3. You need to generate reports on those tests.
In other words, you get to the point where you need some sort of test executive.  A couple of startups I've worked at wrote their own test executive, either because they didn't know any better or didn't want to spend the money on a 3rd party solution.  To me, that's a waste of time and effort, and you spend the extra money anyway in effort.  Yes, TestStand isn't cheap, and yes there is a learning curve.  But it was definitely useful.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

TestStand (part 2 - Learning how to use it)

As part of a project I completed for my previous company, I  learned NI TestStand and implemented it for a test station.  I started writing a few posts about that experience and my impressions of TestStand a year ago.  I'm finally getting around to finishing it, and this is the second of three posts.

Learning how to use it
I came into TestStand from the LabVIEW world, although I have a long background in text-based languages.  When my development group decided we wanted to evaluate TestStand, the first thing I did was download the evaluation software (free) and purchase the source materials for the training class (a couple hundred bucks).  After spending a week walking myself through the training and reading through the manuals, we decided to buy the software and implement it in our test systems.

Here's a couple of pointers for learning it yourself:
  1. Download the manual and eval materials from NI (reference manual). 
  2. Don't pay for the actual training if you don't have the cash.  Just buy the source materials for the training class.
  3. This book is a collection of articles about using TestStand.  If you don't want to spend the $10, you can get most of it from here online.
  4. Step through all of the examples you can find.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

The God particle

It looks like the Higgs boson has been found.  Very cool.

As I've mentioned several times before, I spent time working in high energy physics, before the SSC was shut down.  Back in grad school we talked alot about how close we might be to discovering the Higgs particle and what it would mean.  It's taken a heck of a long time to finally get there, but sometimes research (and taking lots of data) is like that.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Engineering apps for the iPad

After completing a big project at my previous company, our group was given iPads as a thank-you.  While that was certainly a nice gesture, I'm in no way an Apple fanboy, and at the time I was thinking about getting a Kindle Fire for Christmas.  But I didn't turn it down.

I now use it every day at work.  Of course I have a few games on it (although my kids play the games far more than I do), and I check emails on it frequently, but I was surprised at the number of useful engineering-related apps I found.  So I want to list my most useful ones:

  • Penultimate - I use this app for taking notes all the time.  But be warned, I found the interface somewhat cumbersome until I bought a soft-pin stylus.
  • eDrawings - At least every other week I get a SolidWorks drawing for review, either from in house or a vendor.  This apps is a very handy tool for viewing those models and easily showing them to someone else.  For example, a few months ago I brought it into the lab so I could look at a test chuck model and debug a machining problem.
  • VNC Viewer - I am responsible for multiple test stations, each with a separate IP address.  With this app on my iPad I can check those stations when I'm sitting in a boring meeting and don't have my laptop.
  • NI DAQ Device Pinouts - A handy little app that simply lists all the pinout diagrams for the multitude of NI DAQ appliances, this tool has come in handy several times lately.
  • Mariner Calc - I've used this tool a few times in the lab or in meetings when I didn't have access to a computer.  Not bad for a cheap spreadsheet.
  • Filebrowser - It's a nice app for navigating the internal computers on the company intranet.
  • 2X Client RDP - While my computer screen is a little cramped viewing it through my iPad, working on it when I'm in a boring meeting (see above) can come in handy.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Laundry list

Well, aside from the too-ambitious post I made last month, it's been a solid year since I posted on this blog on a regular basis.  We'll just call it a sabbatical.

I'm going to dip my toes back into the water with this blog, so don't expect much more than a post a month for now.  Saying that, here's the list of things I want to talk about this summer (in no particular order):

  • LabVIEW style
  • Startup company personalities
  • My iPad engineering apps
  • Linked lists
  • Interviewing 
  • Test Stand
The first one should be coming this weekend, since I wrote most of it last month.  I'll try to get another one out in a couple weeks.