Saturday, August 13, 2011

NIWeek 2011: It's Everything a Conference Should Be!

There's a saying that has stuck with me through the years and always seems to fulfill its promise: "Be careful what you wish for, it just might come true!" In my previous blog I described some recent conference experiences where there wasn't a lot of engagement with attendees on the floor. I spoke about actually longing for sore feet from standing at the booth all day and a hoarse throat from talking all day. I also commented on how I felt like I had lost out to tablets and smarthphones since conference attendees seemed more interested in their iPhones and Blackberries than talking to industry reps!

Then came along National Instruments' annual trade show and conference, NIWeek, and everything changed. My faith in conferences was restored and I got everything I wished for - my feet were sore, my throat was sore, and people actually wanted to talk to me!

The Focus on Academia is Getting Stronger

NIWeek has been a staple in our conference schedule for over seven years and I believe this was my fifth year attending it. It is not the traditional 'academic' conference that we usually go to. It's tailored to showcase all of NI's new products and updates an mainly targets an industry and commercial engineering audience. Through the years, NI has given Academia a bigger focus and I definitely see that momentum growing, as this year's Academic Forum drew nearly 400 people!

The Quanser entourage arrived late Sunday night and we converged at the hotel bar for some pre-conference planning (and drinking). In preparing for the conference, we knew that Monday's Academic Forum, the first day of the trip, would be our busiest day. We had to set up the Quanser booth on the main show floor, set up and be present during the Academic Forum, then be ready for the show opening on Monday evening. On paper it looked tight, yet manageable...

After a hearty Texan breakfast, we set out to the Convention Center directly across the street from our hotel. Austin in August is hot. How hot? With only a 30 foot walk, I was already sweating (9am, 100F/38C!).

We had a tabletop display at the Academic Forum that was only supposed to go from 11.30am to 1pm. We thought that would be plenty of time to set up, tear down and get the equipment to the Quanser booth for the show opening. We'd just started to set up when eager professors, students and NI employees came over to talk. What should have been a 15 minute set up, took us an hour and a half, because we were engaged in demos and discussions the whole time - and the Academic Forum hadn't even started.

Our Shared Passion is Engineering Education

Luckily at 11.30 Dave Wilson, NI's Director of Academic and Corporate Marketing, took the stage and allowed us to get our set up finished. If you've ever heard Dave Wilson speak, you're aware of his tremendous enthusiasm and passion for engineering education - the same passion that we share at Quanser. Dave's keynote address was exciting and engaging; it was almost 90 minutes long and didn't lose a single listener. He took us from abstract ideas about futuristic teaching to technical descriptions of NI's new forays into engineering education. I don't know how he maintained his energy that long, but it's testament to his obvious passion for enhancing the state of engineering education. It's NI employees like Dave that make partnering with a company like NI such a great fit for Quanser.

Although our tabletop display was supposed to be over at one o'clock, we had all seven Quanser delegates around one small table, talking long past one to professors and NI employees alike about our current demonstrations along with some ideas we're developing for the future.

Quanser "myPLANT" Demo Draws Raves

One of those up and coming ideas was showcased this year - our new myPLANT that couples directly to NI's myDAQ unit. I have never debuted a (future) product that had such an emotional and powerful response from everyone we showed it to.

The main purpose of this product is to allow students to do laboratory exercises without the constraint of being in the lab. That puts myPLANT right in the middle of the continuum between purely theoretical work and hand-on experimentation. It offers the student the ability to learn and study at their own pace while still having a hands-on experience where they are interfacing and interacting with a piece of hardware. The other benefit is that they can take their developed control systems (VIs) and directly target the actual experimental setup when they do eventually get to the lab.

The responses and reactions of everyone who saw myPLANT in action were very good. I was shocked at how many new ideas and methods of deployment people were coming up with that we had not even considered This is sure to be an interesting platform for development with an important role in teaching the next generation of engineers!

Since the official show floor was scheduled to open at 5.30pm with the annual exhibition happy hour (great food and drinks provided), we had to close down our tabletop display and race over with the equipment to the booth. We were ready just in time, as the food was brought out and the kegs were rolled in. If you've never tried a local Texan beer called Shiner Bock, please do so - you will not be disappointed; it was one of the highlights of NIWeek!

NIWeek Was a Huge Success

NIWeek was a big success in my opinion and served as a stark contrast to my experience at ASEE/ACC the previous month. Our booth was constantly busy. The energy on the show floor was electric an I did non stop talking, which can only emphasize just how good a show it was!

Aside from the beer and food, the true highlights of NIWeek were the keynote presentations. National Instruments is a technology company that pulls out all the stops when they put on a show. There are tons of product launches and performance comparisons. Plus it's an all around good time, complete with loud cheers and shouts from the crowds. The keynote presentations allow NI to showcase their latest developments and also serve to motivate the crowd and inspire trust in NI technology as a whole. I always leave the keynotes wondering where I should place my next NI tattoo.

A Great Texas Experience

Austin is known as the world capital of live music and, after a long day of talking and boothing at the show, there's nothing better than heading out with your co-workers to see some live bands on Sixth street, downtown Austin's entertainment center. Sixth street is lined on both sides with bars that feature great bands and cheap drinks. With $1 Shiner Bocks available, who can resist letting loose, unwinding and enjoying some great music after a gratifying day on the show floor. (not us.) With all those dollars spent, getting up the next morning was a little difficult, but having a keynote to look forward to sure made it a little easier...

I began by mentioning an old saying that I thought was particularly true. I'll end with another truism that really sums up this trip: Everything is Bigger in Texas!

- Paul Karam

1 comment:

Emilie said...

Paul -

We're so glad you and your crew at Quanser joined us at NIWeek. Glad to hear the keynotes got you pumped up and excited to be an engineer too.

We look forward to having you guys back next year. I'm curious to find out more about your NI tattoos. :)