Purdue University Builds Bridge From Controls Course to Final-Year Design to Industry With CompactRIO

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"We maintained an uncompromised educational experience while introducing the new hardware because students were not burdened with excessive programming activities when using graphical programming in LabVIEW. Students also reaped the benefits of using automatic control methods in their capstone senior design projects to a greater extent than ever before."

- Dr.Galen King, Purdue University

The Challenge:
Revamping an outdated analog-computer method used to teach controller design techniques and theories to students in the Automatic Control Systems course at the Purdue University School of Mechanical Engineering.

The Solution:
Using NI LabVIEW software and NI CompactRIO hardware to create an advanced hands-on experience that students can use to go from design to prototyping in just one semester. They also gain skills that they can apply to their senior design projects and industry careers.

Author(s):
Dr.Galen King - Purdue University

Keeping Up With Modern Hardware

Automatic Control Systems (ME 475) is a required course in classical controller design that teaches methods based on Laplace transform, including root locus and frequency domain techniques. Analog computers were a logical method to teach these controller design methods for many years; however, while the course theory is still a very sound introductory approach to studying control design, the hardware implementations of controllers that our students are likely to see have changed dramatically. Thus, from a practical point of view, it was necessary to renovate the laboratory. We developed laboratory material content, supporting software programs, and educational resources to accomplish this renovation.

Choosing a Cutting-Edge Solution

This renovation had several goals for both practicality and pedagogy. From a practical point of view, the analog computers were becoming difficult to maintain due to the lack of suitable equivalent replacement parts, high student frustration levels because of equipment failures, and the students’ realization that they would not be exposed to similar equipment during their professional careers. To update the laboratory, we chose CompactRIO and LabVIEW. National Instruments offers industry-proven hardware and an approachable and tightly integrated software solution that ensure students are exposed to the same technology used in industry without having to become text-based programming experts to implement their designs. Additionally, because NI products are cutting-edge and backed by a warranty and technical support, we know the solution will last for many years to come.

Introducing Students to the New Lab Experience

Based on our requirements, we outfitted our labs with 10 CompactRIO systems. Each week, students program their control algorithms in LabVIEW using the LabVIEW Control Design and Simulation Module to simulate and implement their control algorithms. After validating their algorithms in simulation, students deploy the same code to the CompactRIO system, taking advantage of LabVIEW to program the FPGA on the CompactRIO module. Initially, we thought that programming the FPGA would be above the knowledge level of our students, so we provided this code for them. To our surprise, students had a strong desire to program the FPGA themselves. Now, during the first few weeks of this course, students spend time creating basic FPGA code to use throughout the rest of the semester, such as logic for simple PWMs or quadrature encoders. At the end of the semester, students are expected to complete a project with a custom control plant either built by the student or provided by Quanser, a National Instruments Alliance Partner. Students can modify their FPGA code from the beginning of the semester to successfully complete their projects.

Impact on Students

As students complete their undergraduate studies, they are expected to deliver a capstone project implementing the skills they have gained throughout their coursework. As a result of the Automatic Control Systems course, students at Purdue are now using FPGA skills in senior design. This was an unexpected but welcome outcome. Purdue has four CompactRIO systems that are available for checkout to senior design students. Because the demand for using these units in capstone projects is so high (due to students’ exposure to the CompactRIO platform in Automatic Control Systems), we require students to present a justification of how they are using CompactRIO technology in their projects before loaning them the modules. The prior exposure helps students translate controls theory into real-world projects more effectively than ever before. The projects have been of such a high caliber that the university and our students have gained national exposure through television interviews about their design projects (for example, “The Snobot” on CNN) and the sharing of our course content. Finally, National Instruments invited us to reveal the results of our lab renovation at the annual NIWeek conference in 2011, giving us the opportunity to share our success with leading educators and industry experts from around the globe.

Conclusion

The laboratory transformation helped us achieve several educational goals, including exposing students to modern real-time controllers similar to ones they will likely experience in their professional careers and allowing students to design on real-time computers and in FPGAs. We maintained an uncompromised educational experience while introducing the new hardware because students were not burdened with excessive programming activities when using graphical programming in LabVIEW. Students also reaped the benefits of using automatic control methods in their capstone senior design projects to a greater extent than ever before.

Author Information:
Dr.Galen King
Purdue University
West Lafayette, IN 47907
United States

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