National Instruments

A 30-Year History of Enabling Customer Innovation

April 6, 2006

National Instruments, a supplier of test and measurement instruments and software, was led into an entirely new market (K-12 education) by a lead customer—Chris Rogers, an engineering professor at Tufts University. Chris combined NI’s LABVIEW software with LEGO’s MINDSTORMS robotics kits to develop a product that could be used by teachers and kids. Eight years later, NI became the software provider for Mindstorms NXT—for consumer retail and educational markets. NI fosters customer innovation in many ways—by providing software that non-programmers can use to develop their own niche applications, by encouraging users to extend LabView and share their applications and interfaces, by fostering a vibrant online community, and by creating a formal program to recruit and solicit input from “lead users.”

Lead Customer Makes the LEGO® Connection

“How did we wind up providing the software for LEGO® MINDSTORMS TM ? It’s a great story,” chuckled Ray Almgren, National Instruments’ vice president of marketing and academic relations. “I guess you could say we were in the right place at the right time with the right products and a lot of luck thrown in.”

Back in 1997, when Lego was working on its first version of Lego Mindstorms, its consumer robotics kits, Lego’s educational division realized it needed a Macintosh version of the software. Macs were huge in both high school and middle school classrooms in this country--and both were the target market for Lego’s educational division. It wanted to sell Mindstorms to schools, teachers, and parents as a way to teach kids about physics, science, math, computers, and, of course, robotics. What’s more fun than designing your own robot? And, if you can do it as part of a school project or for a science contest, all the better!

Lead Customer Makes the LEGO® Connection

Chris Rogers, professor of mechanical engineering at Tufts University, had a passion for improving kids’ math and science skills. Chris had an active program running in a number of schools around the country with lots of hands-on math and science projects. Teachers loved this program. Kids were engaged. Chris wanted to be able to use Lego Mindstorms so that kids could build robots, come up with the best ways to solve problems, and compete against one another. But he needed a Mac version of the software and Lego wasn’t planning to offer one.

Chris did a lot of programming using National Instruments’ flagship software product, LabVIEW TM . Not only did LabView deliver an easy-to-use, intuitive graphical interface, but it also ran on Macs. With LabView, Chris could expand Lego Mindstorms to the Mac platform and engage more teachers and kids in the fun and excitement of robotics. Robert Rasmussen, then-head of Lego’s USA Education Group, asked Chris to develop an application in LabView to program Mindstorms’ robots.


National Instruments/Scientific Instruments and Software Manufacturer:

For 30 years, National Instruments has been the leader in virtual instrumentation, a concept that has changed the way engineers and scientists approach measurement and automation. In 2005, the company sold product to more than 25,000 companies in 90 countries. The company’s LabView graphical development product was used as the basis for the software that powers LEGO Mindstorms NXT.

Case Study Focus:

1) How to provide tools to support customer innovation.
2) How to support lead users and follow their lead
3) How to foster online communities to support customer innovation.
4) How to recruit lead customers as consultants.

Target Customers:

Scientists and engineers who create highly-specialized measurement and analysis applications.

LEGO Mindstorms’ customers--kids, parents, teachers and adult hobbyist who want to program robots to perform tasks.

Customers’ Issues:

LabView customers want a development tool that is easy to use and is versatile enough so that it can be used to develop a wide variety of applications.

Mindstorms users want a toolkit that is easy to use but that will grow as they become more proficient.

Key Customer Scenarios:

* Scientists/Engineers/Mathematicians: I want to easily develop a measurement and analysis application for my specific discipline.

* Kids/Hobbyists: I want to design more and more powerful robots out of Legos.

* Teachers: I want an easy-to-use tool for students to use for designing robots with Legos.

* Parents/Teachers/Kids: I want the same tools for designing Lego robots at school and at home.

Customers’ Results:

LabView customers have used the platform to create virtual instrument programs which are combined to create such diverse solutions as a virtual weather station, a monitoring and testing application for oil rigs, and an application to measure trial runs for bobsled competitions. Even relatively new developers are able to quickly create applications.

Mindstorms’ software users (many of them kids) are able to start simply and then create more and more sophisticated applications for their robots by leveraging the power of the graphical development environment.

Business Results:

In 2006 National Instruments grew revenues to $572 million, an increase of 11% from the previous year, and had a record net income of ...

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