Data acquisition in a snap

Cleveland, OH-It wasn't fantasies of becoming a millionaire that launched Tom DeSantis on his quest to build an electronics test business ten years ago. "It might sound corny, but I really wasn't thinking of getting rich," says the former design engineer. DeSantis was simply fascinated by the performance potential inherent in combining automated test and measurement equipment with personal computers.

New innovations, such as the graphically oriented Macintosh, caused him to believe a big market would exist for low-cost, easy-to-use products that gave users the ability to perform basic test and measurement operations. And DeSantis felt that the best way to reach that market was to design new products on his own terms-in a non-bureaucratic environment. "Basically, I took the "bootstrap approach,' designing simple products on a low budget in my basement."

Today, privately owned IOtech, Inc. has surpassed all expectations-going from an obscure, one-man, interface operation to a thriving, PC-based data-acquisition company. The firm offers more than 200 products used in a broad range of industries, from aerospace and automotive work to biomedical, electrical, and power applications. Some products, such as the DaqBook Series-portable high speed data acquisition systems for notebook PCs-are so successful that they have become a generic name in the industry.

Recently given the prestigious "R&D Elite Award" by R&D magazine, and Honorable Mentions in the "Best in Test" competition run by Test and Measurement magazine, the company has averaged 20% growth in sales per year. DeSantis, now company president, is convinced the trend will continue well into the future. "We're looking for a 35% sales increase this year for our data acquisition and IEEE 488 hardware and software products. And with an expanding market, we expect growth rates between 25% and 35% for the next several years."

Many industry trends are on IOtech's side. Linking the power and ever- increasing memory capacity of PCs with data acquisition and signal-conditioning components means having fast, built-in statistical and analysis capabilities. For example, when working with Windows, you can easily access a spreadsheet to format graphics. Powerful networking capabilities represent another significant factor. "Computers offer the great advantage of piping data directly into a report format for direct access to spreadsheet and analysis software," explains DeSantis. "You can transmit it to your colleagues or customers immediately. Anyone who builds a test system knows how important it is to document the results quickly."

Plugged into versatility. And the sudden excitement surrounding notebook computers meshes well with the low-cost, easy-to-use features of many of the company's plug-in and add-on products. While the portability of notebook computers seems very attractive to business people, it's truly essential to many test and measurement applications that take place in the field. "New field applications for customized notebooks can range anywhere from measurements made in the ground for earthquake activity to monitoring the brain for sleep disorders," adds DeSantis.

IOtech's goal is to offer less expensive products that take up less space and offer more versatility than dedicated pieces of equipment, such as data loggers, strip chart recorders, digital oscilloscopes, voltmeters, waveform generators, and spectrum analyzers. Complete measurement analysis comes in the form of intuitive, graphics-oriented software, with data acquisition hardware consisting of plug-in boards, add-on devices, and external instruments. It is interconnected so that users can develop test environments in flexible, easy-to-configure systems for different applications.

Creativity drives products. Averaging twelve new products introduced on the market every year, the company prides itself on being product-driven. "We are constantly striving to keep a pipeline of products under development,"says DeSantis. Each year, 25% of IOtech's resources are put into maintaining existing products and 50% into leveraging architectures into new products. Another 25% goes into new technology-with no expectation of payback.

Keeping up the pace at IOtech requires a high level of creative energy in the office. The key to supporting this intensity, DeSantis believes, lies in building strong, open communications among the 65 employees. "We're not big on titles; everyone has a broad range of responsibilities," emphasizes DeSantis. "For instance, the engineering manager may want to create the next seminar, or the marketing manager may want to work on the computer architecture for the next product."

Dynamic growth is propelled by an informal working environment focused on keeping up with changes in the computer industry, as well as constant attention to customers' needs and concerns. Formal meetings are kept to a minimum. Given full responsibility, employees are encouraged to work one-on-one, and good performance results in substantial monetary awards.

Another reason for IOtech's success involves the company's strong commitment to maintaining a technical staff. "Just knowing the buzz words doesn't fly around here," explains DeSantis. Most of the employees-whether they be in marketing, sales, or engineering-need a broad theoretical background in order to possess the high level of detailed knowledge required to understand the technology. "It's not simply a matter of discussing bits and bytes," he emphasizes. "If a customer asks about the Fourier Transform, you need to know exactly what they are talking about."

In order to work in diverse applications, the company emphasizes small size, ease of use, and accuracy as design priorities. For example, DaqBooks are housed in 8- x 11- x 1-3/8-inch enclosures that fit compactly under notebook PCs. The system's high performance 12- or 16-bit, 100 kHz A/D converter is aimed at applications with high accuracy and speed requirements.

Other hot products include:

The MultiScan/1200, a compact, 19-inch rack-mountable temperature and voltage measurement instrument that features channel-to-channel isolation. It can scan thermocouples and voltage at rates as fast as 147 channels/second, and yet can digitize waveforms to 20 kHz.

  • The ISA-bus, plug-in DaqBoard, featuring a 512-location sequencer. It lets you select any channel and gain combination, and configure each channel for unipolar/bipolar operation, depending upon the nature of your application and the data you need to capture.

  • The WaveBook/512, a DSP-based, 12-bit, 1M sample/second add-on for notebooks and desktop PCs. With a $2,495 price tag for the base 8-channel unit and software, it offers performance and features, according to IOtech, typical of digitizers priced at $10,000.

And to be sure that its customers have integrated application-software support, the company's products are supported by icon-based packages, such as Snap-master, LABTECH NOTEBOOK, DASYLab, and LabVIEW.

With the continuing ferment in the PC industry, the overall direction of the company hinges on zeroing-in on the next dominant platform, or as DeSantis puts it, "What horse are we going to bet on next?" For example, Microsoft Corp. and Apple Computer are in a race to introduce the next killer operating system of the '90s. And the PowerPC hardware platform, backed by heavyweights like IBM and Motorola, is shaping up as a powerful challenge to Intel's X86 architecture. DeSantis also readily admits that IOtech's products will not solve all test and data acquisition problems. "There are times when you need a full-blown, highly sophisticated testing system."

Still, the challenge is made-to-order for DeSantis, who became interested in personal computer architecture long before that field was popular. "I was exposed to microprocessor design while working on my B.S.E.E. at Northern Ohio State in the 1970's," reminiscences DeSantis. "Back then, it was really unusual to study digital design. I would buy those build-your-own-computer-kits and put them together in my basement." Later, a stint as a design engineer for a large test and measurement company gave DeSantis the data-acquisition bug. Today, DeSantis is fine-tuning that mixture of experiences into a seamlessly integrated whole. And that's what IOtech is all about.

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