It’s about time

“Timing is Everything.”  What does it really mean?  The engineers at NI know.  And so do all scientists and engineers. You see, it isn’t about Business Timing at all.  It’s about Science and Engineering Timing.  It’s literally referring to time itself, specifically how time is measured and used in science and engineering to understand how the world actually works.  It’s about how the language of the physical world, which is analog, and the language of the computer world, which is digital, are translated so that they can communicate with each other for their mutual benefit.  It’s way more complicated, and it’s way more important, and here’s why…

The world we live in is a big, beautiful place.  Much of it we can’t fully comprehend.  It’s complex, to say the least.  Yet we try, we always have, and we always will – it’s what scientists and engineers do.  Like us, the world is constantly talking.  Communicating, colliding, interacting, reacting, adjusting, and evolving.  The world speaks an infinite of number languages, some of which we can sometimes understand, and some of which we still can’t.  

Take the language of animals, for example.  Do they talk to each other? It certainly seems like they do. They’ve been right here beside us all this time, yet we still can’t have a conversation.  And, what about the weather? Will it rain tomorrow?  It seems simple, but it’s not.  Despite applying the most powerful computers in existence, we still can’t predict with certainty when tornadoes, hurricanes, and other scary events will happen.  Our “arthritic knee” analog indicator is often more accurate than the nightly news forecast.  Why is that?

The reason is this: The world is an analog domain.  It speaks by generating and consuming vast quantities and types of signals that define and control its behavior.  What are those signals? Things like sound, temperature, weight, pressure, velocity, light, and so on, including complex waveforms of all different forms and frequencies transmitting all around and even through us.  The vocabulary of signals – the words of the many languages the world speaks – is very long and complex indeed. Scientists and engineers have been working forever to detect these signals and translate them in a way humans can understand, and even talk back by generating many of those same signals in ways we think the world can understand.  They’ve done this by inventing lots of  different “transducers” – essentially signal translators – to help.  

One example is your household thermometer.  We learned long ago that mercury changes its behavior as its temperature changes – specifically its volume increases by 0.18 percent for every degree in temperature rise.  Great!  Let’s put mercury inside a calibrated tube of the proper scientific dimensions, overlay a scale with marks and numbers we can read, and Viola! We can measure our own temperature!  Easy stuff!

We’ve invented a lot of signal “translating” devices.  And, for hundreds of years, scientists and engineers have been packaging them in boxes called instruments.  For most of time, before the digital age of computers, box instruments used primarily mechanical parts and relied on the physical properties of materials to perform the translation.  These instruments required of a lot of engineering wizardry to implement the complex timing and mathematical transformations needed for interpretation by humans.  And so it went, for a very long time.  Scientists and engineers designed highly customized instruments for all sorts of signals.  It was good business for many people.  Instrumentation created a lot of famous inventors, and it built many great companies.  Our world improved steadily, often times dramatically, as our instruments got better. 

Over the past 50 years, instruments have changed as “digital” technology has matured.  In particular, the “front end” of instruments – the transducers that touch signals directly – evolved to produce a digital value as their output, rather than a traditional physical response.  In this way, the world’s signals became “digitized” into values that a computer can understand.  This meant a lot of the “back end” of instruments – the parts that required the complex and expensive hardware engineering wizardry – could be eliminated and replaced by a programmable computer.  The impact of this paradigm shift would be enormous.  

A good example is a home thermostat.  Like thermometers, thermostats measure temperature.  But unlike a simple thermometer, they also generate a response, or output signal, based on the temperature measured.  This output signal controls the operation of an HVAC system, turning it on and off as needed to maintain a stable desired temperature.  So, they’re actually a scientific “control” system, albeit a very simple one.  Thermostats began and existed for decades as simple analog circuits with a simple analog dial and needle as the user interface.  Yes, they were custom designed to perform one fixed function, but the unit volume of thermostats needed in the world easily justified the cost of such a custom analog circuit design.  The parts were pretty cheap, and they worked great, so why change anything?  

At some point in time, the cost of a small, single-chip computer became less than the cost of building a simple analog circuit for a thermostat.  And, the timing was easy because you only need to sample the temperature around once a minute.  So, engineers built a better mousetrap – it’s what they do.  Thermostats went digital, and there were lots of benefits.  They do the same job for the same price or less, but they can also do a lot more, perhaps even warranting higher price points for new features we might just be willing to pay for. Features such as programmable schedules to increase efficiency and comfort, notifications for failures and maintenance, remote monitoring and control from your computer or phone, and more.  

Now consider the same example, but at the other end of the spectrum.  What about a system to control the temperatures inside a nuclear reactor?  Certainly this presents a much harder example with much more at stake.  Now you’re talking about measuring temperature millions of times per second, if not more.  But it’s not just one temperature, it’s hundreds of temperatures, or even thousands.  And, it’s not just the temperatures themselves that really matter – it’s the rate of change of all the temperatures, and even more importantly their exact rate of change in relationship to each other at exactly the same instant in time as the reaction process occurs.  Of course, that’s only half the problem.  The other half is the complex responses the system has to make, at the exact same instants in time, in order to keep the reaction process stable and under control.  

In reality, most of the world is not as simple as a thermostat.  It’s not even close.  Although we can measure much of the world through its signals – that alone is not sufficient.  Sometimes those individual signals, or “words,” matter, but usually they don’t.  Nor does how “loudly” they are spoken.  What usually matters is the “meaning” of the words being spoken in context with other related words that are also being spoken.  Like us, the world combines its words to form complete sentences and conversations.  Lots of things are talking at the same time, and some things are listening and talking back because it affects them, and other things are ignoring the noise because it’s not important to them at that particular instant in time.  It’s the relationship of world’s signals to each other, at each instance in time, that holds the true meaning.  That “Timing” relationship indeed, “is Everything.”

Written by Ron Wolfe

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