You are somewhat new to NI, could you tell us a little about your background and high-level outlook for the company’s semiconductor business?
I joined NI in the summer of 2019 as the General Manager of NI’s semiconductor business unit. I began my career in the semiconductor industry as an engineer at Motorola and later served in various senior executive roles before becoming the General Manager of the then Freescale’s Radio Frequency (RF) power business unit. More recently, I served as CEO at NEXT Biometrics — a company that makes fingerprint sensors.
I’m incredibly excited about NI’s semiconductor business, which is the fastest-growing business unit at the company. Current technology inflections, like 5G, AI, big data, and autonomous driving are accelerating the need for semiconductors that interface with the physical world. Many of these applications — especially in RF — face intense test and measurement challenges. NI is helping its semiconductor customers accelerate their time to market through faster test processes, which is ultimately driving significant growth in the semiconductor validation and production tests. As a result, we have experienced double-digit growth over the past several years.
Can you tell us about NI’s new brand and what prompted this change?
About a year ago, NI looked to evolve the brand to better reflect our company culture, value, and vision. Over the last several years, our company has made significant internal changes as we transitioned from serving our customers with products to serving our customers with whole solutions. Our rebrand is about showing how our unique approach is enabling our customers to engineer the extraordinary. The modernized brand offers an opportunity to better tell our story of how our internal shift will help us better serve our customers. For example, one of the brand attributes that you’ll hear us talk about is NI’s role as an expert connector within our industry. Particularly in the semiconductor industry, our role is transitioning from a mere vendor of T&M equipment to that of a trusted advisor and partner. This is especially true in 5G applications, where we’re often working alongside our customers to solve mmWave measurement challenges like over-the-air (OTA) measurements.
What is meant by the bold call to action “Engineer Ambitiously” in the new branding?
NI’s customers are at the forefront of engineering innovation and change. Our customers are reimagining space travel, autonomous driving, and modern manufacturing techniques. In many instances, one of the biggest obstacles our customers face is internal resistance to challenging the status quo. This bold call-to-action is intended to inspire our customers to overcome the obstacles they face as they reach to accomplish the goals they dream about.
Why is NI shifting their strategy to software-defined test systems?
As part of our rebranding, we’re putting a lot of emphasis on our approach to deliver software-centric test and measurement systems. We chose the term “software-centric” very intentionally, as it describes a specific subset of software-defined test systems. Today, nearly all modern test and measurement equipment could be described as “software defined” at some level. However, our primary vision is to center software at the very core of modern test and measurement systems. In our view, the power of software is the real enabler inside next-generation test systems, and we want to continue to cast that vision in our product strategy.
How do these changes affect the semiconductor business strategy and products?
Our rebrand is a reflection of how we’re already interacting with our customers. Over the past decade, NI has focused on delivering software-centric systems to their customers, which requires a high degree of enterprise-level partnership. This is especially true within our semiconductor business, where we’ve experienced significant growth by delivering differentiated solutions to our production test customers. Longer-term, our strategy remains centered on delivering enterprise-level solutions to our customers —especially in wireless applications like 5G.
How will NI support creativity and innovation across all phases of the production cycle?
For quite some time, NI’s unique ability to serve customers both in the characterization lab and on the manufacturing floor has allowed customers to continually achieve faster time-to-market goals. Going forward, we see a significant opportunity to further accelerate semiconductor IC development by better connecting workflows across each phase of the product lifecycle with software. Connecting workflows with common software infrastructure enables our customers to solve long-standing challenges like the correlation between design, characterization, and production test. It also improves productivity through the automation of test programs and even programmatic test sequence generation. All of these innovations culminate in faster product development schedules for our customers.
How will this new strategy and focus benefit customers?
Our strategy remains centered on helping our customers get products to market faster and at a lower cost than their competitors. As the pace of technologies like 5G accelerates, we continue to expand our system-level offerings like our over-the-air (OTA) test solutions. In this application, system-level offerings allow customers the opportunity to spend more energy on chip development and versus architecting test and measurement systems.
What are the primary markets driving demand for NI products and technologies?
The primary focus of the semiconductor business unit at NI is on those markets with the greatest amount of analog measurement challenges — especially in wireless communications and optical sensing. Within wireless, both 5G and Wifi6/Wifi7 technologies are driving significant demand for our products, as new technical requirements trigger a need for new test and measurement equipment. For example, 5G introduces extremely challenging modulation quality measurements, especially at mmWave frequencies and especially at bandwidths approaching 1 GHz. For our customers to guarantee spec compliance, they must address these measurement challenges, and NI is committed to working alongside our customers to solve these measurement challenges together to achieve their ambitious engineering goals.
Are you seeing any market changes due to COVID-19 or the trade tensions with China?
Outside of the semiconductor industry NI serves a broad range of customers, and we’ve been honored to help our community through the use of technology. We’ve also been able to expedite product delivery and free technical support for those customers who are producing life-saving devices during these challenging times.
Within our semiconductor business, the Covid-19 pandemic has presented new challenges for the way that our customers work. For example, it has driven a more intense focus on standardization and test automation in the characterization lab as engineers work to stay productive while also working remotely. In addition, Covid-19 has intensified the industry demand for wireless infrastructure — especially as wireless data consumption increases with the use of more home offices. As a result, our customers continue to increase their investment in both WLAN and 5G test capacity as they look to serve this market need. Given the high percentage of our semiconductor business in wireless technologies, the first quarter of 2020 was actually our strongest on record for the business unit.
What are some of the new technologies that NI is working on (like AI, ML, data analytics)?
The use of test data in conjunction with machine learning techniques remains one of the next frontiers of the test and measurement industry. Longer-term, machine learning techniques allow our customers the opportunity to reduce test cost without reducing test coverage. This is actually a big part of our motivation for the recent acquisition of OptimalPlus. The team at O+ has been pioneers in using AI and machine learning techniques to improve product quality and relatability, which aligns with our goals to help our customers accelerate their time-to-market.
What future technologies and applications is NI targeting for the next 3-5 years?
One application where we see significant opportunity to innovate is through the use of data analytics tools to help our customers better transition from the engineering design automation (EDA) world to the physical world. Over the past decade, we’ve been extremely focused on helping our customers accelerate their time-to-market through the use of faster and lower-cost measurement methodologies. The use of data analytics to compare simulation and measurement results is the next step in helping our customers accelerate product development times. We’re continuing to invest in technology that helps customers compare and correlate measurement results from initial design through production test in order to accelerate the product development workflow.