National Instruments made me waste my entire weekend last week. Morgen McCarty sent me a Lego Mindstorms NXT starter kit to play with (I have to give it back, eventually). So I spent the weekend building robots and dusting off my old LabView programming skills. As most of you know, the Mindstorms software is “powered by LabView” which actually means that LabView 7.1 is under the hood.
I decided to stop in and visit NI and met with Ray Almgren and Kylee Kesler and talked about how the Mindstorms project is going.
First of all, I need to remind everybody that this is not really a toy, but a carefully disguised secret plot to convince thousands of young people all over the world to go into science, engineering, technology, and mathematics as careers.
According to Almgren, it is working. Lego has told him that sales are exceeding expectations, that retailer orders have been higher than predicted, and even better than that, sell through is higher than forecast. Sell through is the number of games that customers actually bought, rather than the number retailers ordered. The higher the percentage of sell-through, the better, obviously.
And this is all before the Christmas season rush.
So far, the plot is working.
Almgren and Kesler noted that NXT had won a major award from Popular Mechanics magazine and other awards.
We talked about the fact that none of the major automation companies, and none of the robotics companies, except for NI, have joined the Mindstorms Education Consortium. Almgren downplayed this, but frankly, it still is something of a puzzlement to me.
I know people from many of those companies read this blog. I would be interested in hearing from them about why they haven’t climbed onto this fabulously successful bandwagon.
That’s the real issue, Kesler noted. “We don’t need people running around starting new initiatives to create more engineers, just to have their own stamp on it. We know there are many initiatives already in place, with many excellent results. What we need is more people to climb onto existing initiatives and make them work, locally and globally.”
Almgren said he thinks that the first place the lack of US engineering talent will be felt is in the defense contractors– because they MUST hire US citizens. I hadn’t thought of that, but I think he is right– and now that I see it, it IS obvious, as Einstein once said, after rethinking a problem for hours.
Then I was treated to an advance preview of the new LabView 8.20 Toolkit for Mindstorms NXT. This is really hot for several reasons.
First, it validates the use of NXT to produce “job-ready” graduates…they can move directly into programming in LabView with maybe an hour’s familiarization. Second, it gets engineers already in the job force interested in volunteering with students, and they can use the LabView they already have. Third, it makes LabView into a full featured NXT development tool, and people can produce VIs and other function blocks in LabView to complement the ones already in the NXT environment.
Next to last, and this one is important, it will allow 8 year olds to program in embedded computing environments that colleges and universities have said are too hard for undergraduates to learn how to do.
Finally, you can probably expect to see upward migration of VIs from NXT to LabView…kids are really smart and practical, and they’ll come up with simple solutions to motion control and other applications that are so bloody simple that we professionals just wouldn’t think them up.
Now for the kicker. The demo included the use of one NXT block as a controller, communicating with the robot via bluetooth.
Remember my discussion with Steve Apple of TiPS about true distributed computing? We saw an example of it in the Mindstorms Toolkit demo…and kids who grow up programming in that environment will demand it when they become automation professionals.
Automation companies take note.