Here on the Sweet Apps Blog, we love to hear about the successes of our LabVIEW users. Even better, we love to hear about when our LabVIEW users have won awards, prizes, trophies and the like for their cutting-edge solutions.

One of our Academic Field Engineers, Andy Watchorn, forwarded us some breaking news regarding the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and their entry in the 2009 Solar Decathlon, hosted by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). Twenty teams of college and university students competed to design, build, and operate the most attractive, effective, and energy-efficient solar-powered house. The competition focus is on utilizing renewable energy as much as possible, and using it efficiently.

Our friends at University of Illinois ended up taking second place overall! Woo-hoo! John Simon gives us a virtual tour of their award-winning, Gable Home design:

I had the opportunity to sit down with Jon Ehlmann, who designed the Gable Home’s custom, energy-efficient, heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) system, one of the key differentiators that made their entry so successful. He makes some very interesting points about why a custom, flexible HVAC makes the Gable Home’s automation system “future proof.”

What is your technical background and how were you involved in the Gable Home project?

I am an electrical engineering graduate student with an emphasis in power electronics.  I did all of the coding of the HVAC, and worked closely with 2 Mech-Es to figure out the electrical portion of the HVAC system and control strategy.

Why did you choose LabVIEW to control the HVAC?

I chose to use LabVIEW to develop the Gable Home’s Automation system for many reasons. First, I looked at a number of turn-key solutions on the market for home automation and noticed they fell short in at least 1 area, and were very expensive.  Some couldn’t monitor power. Some were hard to install.  This is why I chose to do a custom system.

I chose LabVIEW mainly because it is very easy to integrate different hardware.  In my case I had to integrate data acquisition (DAQ) for power monitoring, DAQ for HVAC control, and a power line modem to interface with Insteon smart switches and outlets.  I also felt the ability to customize the software to nearly any hardware is especially important with talk of adoption of a smart power grid and smart appliances.  By having a custom solution, our house is more “future-proof”

I had to write a custom serial driver for the Insteon PowerLinc Modem (PLM).  The NI VISA drivers were very helpful in interfacing with the PLM.  LabVIEW’s remote front panels made remote monitoring of the house very straightforward to implement.  I also chose LabVIEW because of its graphical programming environment.  This environment is fantastic for rapidly developing software.

How long did it take you to build?

Three very busy months.  I was given the project in the summer because our original controls group graduated and hadn’t really gotten anything done beside very conceptual work.  In fact, when I contacted the Insteon rep he said had been working with Cornell’s team for over a year and had doubts whether I would be able to control the lights by competition.   Not only did I control the lights, I also controlled the HVAC and monitored power.  LabVIEW’s graphical programming language really helped with the rapid development of this system.

What did you appreciate most about NI tools?

LabVIEW”s graphical programming language made programming easy, and the DAQmx drivers made measurement and control easy.

Thanks for sharing Jon, and congratulations on your award-winning design.

For more information, check out their team website:

Now, how do I make a reservation to stay at this sweet crib?


Christopher Farmer from CPE Systems, wrote me and Morgan (Morgan and me? Morgan and I? grammar geeks, help me out here!) to tell us about his Sweet App he’s been working on.

Apparently, our Aussie friends from down under have been collaborating with BT Imaging (BTi) to provide a photoluminescence imaging system in order to improve the way we manufacture solar cells, helping to detect faults and imperfections in solar cell materials. Admittedly, I had to google “photoluminescence” in order to really understand what is going on. Here’s what I could gather:

Photoluminescence, or PL since engineers love abbreviations and acronyms, is a process where you shoot a bunch of photons at something and it bounces back a bunch of photons, allowing you to create an image from what bounced back. Essentially, it’s like the flash on your disposable camera; you shine light on something and then you can see an image; only this is at the quantum level. And the flash of photons occurs within nanoseconds.

So BTi built a machine that can see the tiny tiny imperfections on solar cell materials by using PL imaging and contacted CPE when they wanted to scale their systems to be deployed to solar cell manufacturers around the world (GO GREEN!). Here’s where things get extra sweet:

The UI designed by Chris and his CPE colleagues is incredibly seamless and sexy; sexy in a way that the UI Interest Group would definitely appreciate. Chris described the front panel architecture for us:

“A major requirement was the ability to make child windows, so the user can open several image and data viewers that are all anchored to the main user interface. To achieve this, MultipleDocument Interface (MDI) capability was incorporated via windows API calls. [BTi] also required a black schema that was not dependant on the windows schema, as the look of the software needed to be preserved regardless of where it was installed. This was achieved by designing custom black frames that could be spawned containing any VI in a sub panel. Transparency was also utilized to implement sliding panels and other interface features.”

So here’s what I meant by sexy UI:


(There’s all kinds of crazy-cool-funkiness going on in that screenshot)

I should mention that CPE engineers used LabVIEW for their project saying it “provided the capability to easily interface to the range of hardware present in the system such as pneumatics, laser, SMU, illuminator, photodiode, Sinton bridge, and camera.” That’s a lot of data to display from sensors; no wonder the front panel is so sexy (yes, I’ve said sexy five times now in one blog post; that’s a Sweet Apps record! Does that make this blog post sexier than the one Morgan wrote about bras?).

Christopher also informed us that he and his fellow Aussies just won an award at the Pace Zenith Awards 2009 in Australia, for the Power and Energy Management category. Congratulations, mate! Pour the champagne and queue the music:

Remember Oprah’s bold statement back in 2005? No, not the one about that book that she loved, defended, and then hated, this statement: “Women of America, you need to rise up and get a proper bra fitting.”

Well, NI products were ahead of Oprah.

So I work in the Marketing Communications group here at NI, with a bunch of lovely ladies. On the case studies team, it’s our job to figure out how to best communicate the applications that engineering firms are creating with NI products. I don’t know what it is, but it seems like most of the applications that come are way are so, well, man-centric. It’s testing race cars and figuring out how to design communication systems for the military, and engineering bridges to ensure that they’re stable in all of the right places.

What I am not seeing is a way to test exactly how long I can have my straightener on high, clamped tightly on my bangs before the molecular structure of the hair actually changes, leaving me with tiny, singed ends. Or, how to know exactly how many times I am going to be able to button the super-cute but cheaply-made vest I just bought before the button comes off. See? I can think in terms of strain testing.

Well, ladies. Strap on your seatbelts. LabVIEW has something for you. A girl application. An Oprah application. Forget about making sure that bridges are stable in all of the right places, LabVIEW is going to make sure that you’re stable in all of the right places.

That’s right. Pankhurst Design and Development Ltd (PDD) of Hammersmith, London to designed and built a bra-sizing rig in LabVIEW for FigLeaves, a UK-based lingerie shop. PDD in-turn selected LiveWires to handle the PC-based software, data acquisition and motor control.

PDD developed a torso with 2 latex breasts that can be inflated and deflated by pumping water in and out of them.  In this way, a good fit can be achieved for the “cup size” of each bra.  The torso also has a motorized back plate that effectively allows the circumference to be altered, thus allowing the “band size” of each bra to be determined.  A National Instruments PCI-7344 motor control card controls the 3 motors in the system – one for the back plate adjustment and two for the peristaltic pumps associated with each breast.

Check out that image, it’s my favorite part, its inflatable breasts and all:


Our Northern Europe Office sent over an article where NI was featured. The headline (translated) is something like “Joining a Listen When Elephants Talk.” I love animals (no doubt this will become more noticable as my posts continue), so natually, I was stoked.

Talking elephants, though?

This is all I could think of:

Remember that little French elephant?

Well, Denmark doesn’t have Babar after all these years, but they do have a new language laboratory in the Copenhagen Zoo, where they can listen and understand elephants communicating with each other.

NI and Brüel & Kjær Sound & Vibration (B & K) Copenhagen donated a system that can record, analyze and play back the sounds of elephants and other animals with some Brüel & Kjær hardware and LabVIEW.

Elephants make sounds to say things like “follow me” or “want to mate?” (clearly, animals are much more direct than we humans are). They can communicate with low-frequency vibrations because not only are their ears sensitive, but their feet are as well, feeling vibrations through the ground.

Here is where it gets weird:

So, the girl elephants don’t always want to communicate. Sometimes they play hard-to-get, or are just giving each other the cold shoulder. Sheesh girl elephants, I would never do that.

You know how the zookeepers get them to talk? My guess would be just to poke them with a stick, or offer them a glass of wine (that seems to always work with me). Nope. Guess again. Throw them some boy-elephant poo at them. That’s right. Read it again. They throw the boy-elephant poo at the girl elephants. Throw some crap at them and they will get to talking.I can’t imagine what those conversations are about.

Next steps for the researchers involve trying to understand communication between the mother and her baby during child birth.

**Animal friendliness note: The zoo is making sure not to cause any stress to the animals by monitoring their sound!

You can also read the full article. I hope you are from Denmark, because it is in Danish and I can’t figure out how to get Google Translator to translate it. I am sure you can.


More about the application:

Brüel & Kjær developed a microphone that can capture low frequency sounds that elephants use to communicate with each other. Elephants essential communication sounds have frequencies that are typically between five and 20 Hz, and can only be captured by humans as vibrations.

With an analog-to-digital converter, sounds pass from the microphone to a PC and then with NI LabVIEW, sounds can be played and displayed graphically so that researchers can study patterns of animal sounds and analyze them.

Morgan’s Post on remote monitoring of the medical clinic construction in Malawi reminded me of another, very cool way LabVIEW users are making the world a better place.

This one does not need much explanation. Kudos to the students at Penn State putting together such a powerful video for a such a powerful solution.

My background is in writing, not so much in engineering. Ok, not at all engineering. The closest I came to engineering before working at NI was when a friend of mine made a cheesecake from Cooking for Engineers. The cheesecake was one of the best I have ever had, but I couldn’t bring myself to read the copiousinstruction manual recipe that divulges the secrets of recreating it.

However, over the past three years, I have grown a fondness for engineers. My co-blogger friend, Emilie, can easily put together a LEGO Mindstorms robot, or tell me how a clock works or what in the world this is all about. She also knows more acronyms than a government lobbyist in a controversial state. And that impresses me.

Anyhow, I sprend a lot of time reading stories accounts case studies about what engineers are doing with NI products. Some of them, though I know are crucial to the technological advancement of this great country, I find horridly boring. I think my ignorance puts up a barrier between me and said applications (see how I did not link to any applications? Because at least I am decent at communicating, I know that doing so would be career-limiting). No, really. There are so many applications that are so far over my head that I hand them to Emilie and tell her I am not sure about them. She reads them, explains how great they are, and then I am on my merry way. Ignorance deflected, and I then have a new appreciation for something I once thought boring.

However, there are some case studies that are initially touching.

Some applications that I just can’t quit reading. Like this one:

Engineers at a University in Scotland are working with Malawi Polytechnic school to create mobile health clinics, and they’ve created a facility where they can actually create these mobile clinics, as well as perform routine maintainence and make sure the clinics are using enercy as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible.

At the remote health clinic manufacturing facility, mobile clinics or other mobile organizations can be manufactured, outfitted with appropriate interior equipment, and equipped with solar, wind, or microhydroelectric generating equipment. Currently, one remote health clinic facility is located in Makata, a small village in Malawi.

Engineering that results in deliciuos cheesecake, I get. Engineering that results in providing medical care in remote areas to those who wouldn’t otherwise receive it, I also get.

You can read the full case study here:

As a company full of male engineers, it’s no surprise that a fellow employee happened to be watching Spike TV last week and noted an interesting show. It’s a conversation topic that is shared amongst practically any social gathering of engineers:

Who would win in a fight to the death?
(Insert your historical warrior figure here) vs. (insert other warrior here)


A 2 hour- 45 minute conversation ensues, chock full of citations, estimations, equations and perhaps even re-enactments to judge which historial warrior is the deadliest. Oh yes, it gets extremley geeky.

Spike TV has created a show to tackle such a question: Deadliest Warrior. I happened to catch last week’s episode: Ninja vs. Spartan. It’s a lot like Myth Busters; lots of lab experiments to measure and analyze the fatality of the warrior weapons and the ruggedness of their armor. Piercing, stabbing, clubbing and impailing is tracked with accelerometers, high-speed cameras, gyroscopes, and strain gauges. Of course, it can get a little messy; most of the experimental runs are conducted on jello-like human test dummies and real pig cadavers. Mmm, delicious.

There’s a lot of data analysis that goes into determining who would win. What better tools to quickly and easily acquire and analyze massive amounts of sensor data? LabVIEW and DIAdem, of course. Watch the show and you’ll see our software on their laptop screens. Everytime you see the data being displayed, you are looking at NI software.

See for yourself (and see if you would agree with the outcome; I didn’t want to spoil it for you)