Jayaram Pillai, National Instruments: “We believe in nurturing innovation by making engineering tools affordable, accessible & relevant.”


We at YourStory.in recently caught up with Jayaram Pillai, Managing Director (IndRA), National Instruments to know more about the engineering company’s plans in India, their offerings for SMEs and their PlanetNI initiative, designed to foster innovation by enabling access to technology and education.Jayaram has over 10 years of experience in the measurement and automation domain. Following a 15 year stint with the Indian Navy, he joined National Instruments as an Applications Engineer in 1996, moved on to become a Business Development Manager and then took over as Managing Director of India in 2003. Under his leadership, NI IndRA has been one of the fastest growing regions for NI globally and has continuously posted double digit growth.

In this chat with YourStory.in, Jayaram speaks about the importance of India in NI’s scheme of things globally, the engineering startup ecosystem, making LabVIEW accessible to all and their SME Benefit Program.

We understand that you head NI IndRA. Can you take us through the strategic importance of the IndRA region for NI, from the global point of view?

NI IndRA, which includes India, Russia and Arabia countries, is one of the most dynamic and fast growing markets for NI globally. For example, last quarter alone, the region grew at about 20% as compared to same time last year and more impressively, at more than 50% as compared to 2008, just before the global financial meltdown. The region accounts for more than 25% of our total revenues now. So, the potential in the region is undeniable.

It has especially been a privilege to serve the engineering and scientific community in India. It is particularly exciting to see India introduce an aggressive program to improve the infrastructure problems that have impeded the rapid development of a vibrant export-oriented manufacturing base. Reading about these types of developments is exciting because we see even more opportunities for Indian manufactures to leverage our expertise in end of line manufacturing test, for example.

Engineers and scientists in India that are involved in product design and validation as a result of India’s emergence as a global R&D hub are one example of this driving force. Alongside a continued investment in new product R&D to meet these needs, we believe that aggressive investment in our branch offices in India and other emerging economies will be a key growth driver for the company in the next few years. And based on past performance (Indian engineers and scientists are regularly among the finalists of our annual global virtual instrumentation applications paper contest), we fully expect that engineers and scientists in India will continue to distinguish themselves with their innovative uses of virtual instrumentation.

Measurement and automation have been vital pieces of NI's oeuvre over the years. Can you trace the evolution of these domains for us?

Long ago, we spotted trends in our market’s systems and products of increasing uniqueness and complexity. This implied that, over time, design and test would necessarily shift from a generalized approach to a more unique and individual approach. So, we employed innovation to develop flexible and adaptable tools that would address the testing needs of unique and complex products while our competition continued to focus on more vendor-defined and static functionality. They did not find this aspect of the marketplace as interesting so they did not invest in developing the technology that would rapidly adapt to these characteristics.

In this way, we avoided some competitive challenges because we were serving different needs. Furthermore, we developed our tools on platforms that would advance at the same rate as the demand for individuality in consumer products namely software, the PC, internet and embedded computing targets. This ensured that our tools would inherently gain in performance and capability through the advances of these platform technologies.

Our customers, scientists and engineers, are challenged to deliver high-function, low-cost products to their markets more quickly. As their supplier, we must empower them to do this. The way we’ll help them is by innovating to extend our core competencies to adjacent areas. Historically, we’ve delivered flexibility, reduced development time and cost, and increased performance to the test and prototype areas. We’ll extend this to the design area so that during the actual modeling and simulation phases, the prototype will be created more by default.

We’ll also extend to the deployment phase so that both the modeling and prototyping code will be more directly deployable into the end product. By doing this, we anticipate an overall reduction in the effort and time required to design, prototype and deploy products and systems. Our vision to meet this challenge is characterized as “Graphical System Design” or GSD. GSD incorporates the fundamental elements of virtual instrumentation including highly productive software, adaptable modular instrumentation and best-performance commercial platforms and extends these benefits into all phases of the design cycle.

Fundamentally, what has changed in design & engineering? How has NI responded to the change?

In the past, design engineers used one set of tools for design, another group used a different set of tools to prototype and test the product and another group had to design a test system for testing the final products. The market place has forced companies to fundamentally change the way this process is done and now most design engineers are involved in all aspects of the product life cycle, from design to test and even service.  We are uniquely positioned in the marketplace with a platform that bridges the design, prototype and deployment stages of design.

Tell us more about Planet NI. We understand that there's a specific SME Benefit Program under Planet NI. How has the program fared and how have the SMEs in the program benefited?

Planet NI helps engineers and students in developing countries work toward economic prosperity and sustainable development by providing access to technology and education. This initiative nurtures local innovation by making engineering tools affordable, accessible and relevant to academic organizations, entrepreneurs, and small and medium enterprises. National Instruments offices around the world define and support their programs locally by collaborating with groups and individuals that share the Planet NI mission, which is to improve the world through technology.

SMEs form the backbone of the Indian economy. Despite its importance, the sector faces several challenges like inadequate funds, an unskilled work force and lack of technological upgrades. India has made great strides in encouraging entrepreneurs realize their dreams but in the area of technology innovation, we still lag behind developed countries. Planet NI’s SME Benefit Program is designed to help SMEs to face today’s increasing competitiveness in the market and provides them the state-of-the-art technology tools that can improve productivity and effectives. Just in past 2 years, NI India has enrolled more than 150 Small and Medium Enterprises across various industries into the Planet NI SME Benefit Program. I invite you to visit our website www.planetni.in to read more about them.

Most engineers identify NI with LabVIEW. But small enterprises are unlikely to be able to afford the licensing of LabVIEW. How does NI aid small enterprises and educational institutes get access to LabVIEW?

There is a lot of difference between the per capita income of engineers in developed countries like the USA and India. The engineering education system in our country is quite strong but has some way to go before the gap between classroom learning and industry expectations are met. We realize that in addition to access to technology, in this case LabVIEW has to be accompanied by a strong commitment to provide knowledge, training and support channels to the adopters. The framework of SME Benefit Program strives to address these factors affecting the technology adoption among the SMEs. Not only do we increase the affordability and flexibility of pricing for our technology, but we back it up with skilled and trained support and various options for training for both SMEs and students. In addition, we have developed several online tutorials for LabVIEW users to enhance their expertise and very shortly, we will also launch India’s biggest online LabVIEW community where users can network, discover and share knowledge with thousands of their peers across India and also the world.

Can you share with us some instances of high-potential innovations supported under the Planet NI initiative?

Since its inception, the SME Benefit Program has helped more than 150 startups across diverse industry domains like automotive, aerospace, energy, machine manufacturing and electronics. One particular example I would like to highlight is the development of a solar-powered milk chilling system for rural India where electricity is unreliable. In response to the lack of a cold chain infrastructure in India to transport fresh foods we recently helped develop a refrigeration system to meet the unique set of challenges facing the Indian dairy industry. India draws its milk supply from millions of small farmers in villages scattered across the vast countryside.

The current milk collection process is inefficient. It relies on twice-a-day pick up of warm milk, which results in high transportation costs and frequent spoilage – as much as 30 percent in the hot season. If dairies can immediately cool the raw milk at the village collection centers, they can cut transportation costs in half, save milk from spoiling and pay their farmers more. Specialized milk refrigerators already exist, but the unreliable grid electricity supply means they must be operated with diesel-powered generators, an undesirable solution that increases capital and operating cost.

The design was based on solar power because of our domain expertise of our partner and the wide acceptance of solar power as a viable and economical power source in sunny locations such as India. However, because a milk cooling system is a mission-critical application that must run 24 hours per day, 365 days per year, we combined solar power with the available grid power to arrive at a superior system that can operate even during extended periods of cloud coverage or grid unavailability. It is truly a remarkable application which is running currently at a location in South India.

How does LabVIEW affect the productivity of an engineering startup? What are the factors that make the framework so sought after?

The vision of virtual instrumentation and now Graphical System Design has revolutionized the way engineers and scientists work, delivering solutions with faster development time, lower costs, and greater flexibility. To realize this vision, though, several key components had to emerge. The first is intuitive software to enable engineers and scientists to develop their own solutions quickly, without needing the services of an expert computer programmer. The second is the open platform of the personal computer that enables the connectivity and integration of a wide variety of measurement and automation hardware through standard buses and networks. Third, virtual instrumentation needed to leverage technologies that would improve faster over time than traditional instrumentation, such as the processing power of PCs, the capabilities of semiconductor ICs, graphics and user interfaces, networking standards, and so on – commercial technologies from the consumer realm that can drive down costs while adding advantages for measurement systems.

In 1986, National Instruments introduced LabVIEW graphical development, the software that is as productive for engineers and scientists as the spreadsheet is to those in the financial industry. For the first time, LabVIEW software offered an easy way to acquire data, control instruments, analyze, and present data from a personal computer without sacrificing performance or functionality. Also, because the functionality of the test system is defined with software, test engineers can reuse instrumentation hardware for new tests, saving capital costs as well as development costs. They can modify the system as their needs change without completely replacing it.

Recently, National Instruments introduced a real-time version of the LabVIEW software. In the post-PC era, as PC technologies continue to migrate into the real-time and embedded space, LabVIEW will ensure scalability from development for the PC to development for distributed real-time and embedded systems and devices. LabVIEW, available now for Windows, Macintosh, Linux, Sun Solaris and a real-time operating system, continues to stay up to date with the latest software technologies. With LabVIEW, engineers and scientists can connect to any measurement device – from stand-alone instruments to plug in data acquisition devices, motion controllers, and image acquisition systems. This integration, along with powerful functionality and ease of use, helps the engineer scale his or her LabVIEW development to meet needs of applications from the simple to the complex.

What are your views on the technology startup ecosystem in India? What steps can be taken to encourage innovation in the engineering domain?

The technology startup ecosystem is progressing fairly in India. We have seen the emergence of a lot of incubation centers, much credit for which should go to the top educational institutions across the country. India’s comparatively stable markets have also encouraged investors into providing some much needed financial muscle.

Having said that, the engineering startup ecosystem still has a long way to go. From a technical point of view, science colleges are doing a great job of trying to provide students with real world exposure but we are not really catering to entrepreneurs coming from industry. The steps to encourage innovation would involve better engineering education coupled with greater industry interaction and many success stories in the domain to inspire people to innovate where I feel initiatives like yourstory.in are really making a difference.

What are the kinds of SMEs who will benefit the most from Planet NI?

The National Instruments vision of Graphical System Design is to accelerate the development of any system that needs measurement and control. SMEs from the engineering domain across industry verticals stand to benefit from our technology. The sheer versatility and power of LabVIEW enables engineers and scientists from a number of domains accelerate their productivity, innovations and discovery.

Where do you see Planet NI & the SME Benefit Program five years from now?

In India, we are very serious about our commitment towards Planet NI. Each one of our employees understands and is proud of the difference we are making to society and fellow innovators through this excellent program. In the long term, we will continue to invest in resources, technology and processes which will enable us to spread the Planet NI umbrella to a more widespread audience. We are very attentive to the needs of the market and what feedback we receive from our customers. There seems to be a very encouraging partnership developing between us and SMEs who have availed of the Benefit Program under Planet NI. We are sure we will be able to add more value and look at other areas to help entrepreneurs. As a result, we should see SME flourishing and make a few entrepreneurs very successful in the next five years.

To know more about how NI can enable startups and SMEs in the engineering space, check out www.planetni.in. Also, do let us know what you think of this story by writing to us at feedback@yourstory.in.


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