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Interview

with Juan Carlos Castillo, General Director Mexico, National Instruments

23.04.2012 / Energyboardroom

You have worked in National Instruments (NI) since 1997. Can you tell us what the major developments of the company have been since the opening of its first offices in Mexico in 1998?

NI has evolved in two different dimensions. One is our physical presence in Mexico, where we mainly started by servicing the test stations that come from the US. Since there is a lot of engineering that is developed in the US that comes into Mexico and needs to be maintained. However at the beginning is pure maintenance it starts evolving. In such a way, that the Mexican engineers turn from being merely technicians who have to keep the equipment up and running, to true engineers who start developing new stations. Then all of a sudden, you start having engineering groups working and creating things here in Mexico which adds value to the chain. What I just mention was the initial stages of NI.

The second dimension has to do with the products. We started in Mexico very heavily in the manufacturing and test segment, but after 2002, with certain products and with the vision of our president and CEO, we started diversifying and getting more into control and more industrial types of applications such as process control and industrial automation.

As a result, the company has evolved in the last 15-20 years in those two areas, not only in our physical presence in Mexico, but also in the segments where we are participating.

Which are the segments where you are participating?

Currently for us the most important segments are the academic segment, the test segment, which is manufacturing, and then the energy segment, which we divide into two: oil and gas and then power energy. The research area is also quite important for us, which also ties up will all the segments we work in.

Compared to your competitors you have been for a couple of years in Mexico, how challenging has it been to position NI in the Mexican market?

The competitors we have are very well known and renowned brands worldwide, that have their market share for a reason, they are good at what they do.

However, there is a reason we are here as well and growing as fast as we are. The reason is that we have found a niche that our competitors have not. That niche is using the power of computers and processors, of commercial off-the-shelf technologies, in solving the issues of the industries.

So while our competitors have been traditionally offering, I would say, closed systems that really offer little flexibility to the customer or end-user, our systems by contrast are fairly open. They can be reconfigured and are modular in such a way that customers are starting to like that more. This is especially true in the environment today where every time applications become more and more complex.

So, whereas before it was enough to measure vibration, and that was all you needed to do, today, vibration is just the start. On the same system, you need to measure vibration, temperature, power, and the quality of the energy. So having all of that in one single system, which can be modular, and which can grow with every application, is something that not every company has.

It is definitely a matter of training the customer and also showing the value that we bring to the table. However, once we accomplish that then our product is accepted almost immediately.

Can you explain the benefits of NI LabVIEW?

The beauty of NI LabVIEW is that it is a programming language that allows you to build your applications through blocks of code, using something like a flow chart.

What am I talking about here? First, it is a language program, which is different to a package that you might be used to using, like a traditional SCADA system. No matter how flexible it is, it is still a package with limited functionality. It comes to the point where you want to make a full rear transform in such a package, if it has a functionality rate. If it does not, you are in trouble.

However, with a programming language, it is completely open. You can do whatever you want. If the provider, in this case National Instruments, gives you the tools then great. If not, then you can create them. You can go to the text books and create the algorithms you may need.

Furthermore is open since of the way it evolved, it is open to communicate with other languages, from C to Visual Basic, to C sharp and to other packages. In the case of the industry we are talking about, it is open through OPC servers through protocols, so that the most renowned protocols used in the market as Fieldbus, etc. can communicate with LabVIEW freely. That is one of the advantages of this programming language.

The other thing is that it is graphical programming it in blocks, and through a flow chart. So instead of worrying about the syntax and the little things of the programming language, you can jump directly to your application.

Now the beauty of this is, if you want to start from scratch, you can do it through LabVIEW and it will be with these building blocks and this flow chart. But if not, you can purchase an application built by a company that can sell you a HMI SCADA base on LabVIEW.

So what is the advantage and how do you compare that to another programming level, another SCADA package? This application will be a SCADA with full functionality, but you have LabVIEW in the back which means is completely open to whatever else you want to bring in to the code.

What kind of economical value does NI software offer to the industry?

What is the cost of having a very specialized engineer programming an application for months or having your plant down because you cannot get data? So the more you can lower those times and the quicker you can have your application up and running, the quicker you start saving time and money.

The very first benefit of LabVIEW is, being a friendly and an open platform, it allows you to start building your application quickly and have it running in no time. Then if someone wants to make a change, that is fairly simple within LabVIEW.

With regards to specificity to the oil & gas industry and the way that it is used, the SCADA packages usually charge you for a tag – a tag is an IO point. LabVIEW does not charge for tags so you can have a thousand tags. It depends on the computing power that you have. Of course, there comes a point where it becomes inefficient to have too many tags in a single machine. However, if the architecture of your system is there, you do not have to pay us for every single tag that you add which is a big advantage.

In brief, the value comes in the architecture itself and the way you program as well as how much time and money you save using out applications.

As you mention one of your pillars is R&D. You do not have a research and development center in Mexico but you do have a budget for SME R&D. Can you tell us something about that?

Are you talking about Planet NI Program? Yes

Unfortunately, we do not have R&D center in Mexico, but that does not mean that there is no creativity or that there is no good engineering talent in Mexico. What we noticed on the other hand is that those very talented engineers do not always have the resources and the economic power to buy the tools in order to turn their dreams or their visions into reality.

Therefore what we are doing as a technology company is sponsoring these small companies, these SMEs, in such a way that if they have a viable project, if it is a grounded project and they have a solid business plan, then we will provide the technology at no cost. We will even provide the training in order they can turn their projects into reality.

So far, we have had excellent success. We have collaborated with many companies that have green ideas. There is one in Baja California, for example, that is trying to measure the impact of pollution in the ocean. It is a great program that in addition, it is helping us. For this program, just to give you an example we were able to develop a company called Machine Spy focused in machine condition monitoring solutions.

This is a great initiative since the payback for us is excellent we had the perfect win/win situation. We are very excited about these types of projects and supporting these companies. They have all the will and all the energy; it is just that the resources are not there. Therefore, we try to support them as much as we can.

As you mention R&D is a most and Mexico has talent to develop this kind of activities, however they are very limited. Do you think this will change and talking about NI are there any plans to implement R&D in Mexico?

There have been discussions on potentially opening an R&D center in Mexico. Unfortunately, the priorities of the company are different in this moment. From what I understand, it has been a geographic situation, since Austin is very close to Mexico it doesn’t make a lot of sense to have a center here.

To answer your question about R&D activated in Mexico I think it is changing. I think the way we see it from when we started to now, all the research centers in Mexico used to be theoretical. Their main goal was to create papers and to create very good intellectual exercises, but that was about it.

The shift that we have seen, particularly in the last two to three years, is that the research centres in Mexico have started to really work closer with the industry and really have plans to turn their inventions and their work into real projects.

In fact, we know of certain R&D centres that will not start any kind of activity unless it is funded by a viable project. I think that is a huge shift. It is similar to Brazil. That is exactly what they are doing and they have been extremely successful. We are very optimistic about this shift.

What kind of opportunities do you see in the oil and gas industry and how are you preparing for them?

The opportunities are all over the place. The crisis we had demonstrated a lot of flaws that we had in the system. One of the flaws showed that energy is finite, so we have to really use our resources with more wisdom. Companies are now very conscious about the cost of energy. Not only that, but with global warming.

Companies are starting to invest in areas that they never thought about investing in before. The savings could be enormous and every single industry is looking into ways of using energy in a more efficient way.

The thing is you do not know how to do things more efficiently until you can measure them. If you think about yourself – for example if you want to be healthier, or if you are overweight or underweight – then you need to measure. That is what we do. That is the start of every single project.

So what we are offering the industry for now is a way to measure anything they want. Therefore automating the measurement is crucial.

After you have made the measurement, you need to take some action. That is where we also come in. You have to do controls and you have to close the loop. Our systems allow for super-fast control. We are talking here nanoseconds, which is something our competitors cannot do easily. That gives us an advantage.

Finally, the opportunity is that as you measure and control, there are a lot of things around that which we are perfectly well-positioned to do. For example, these include sharing the information with management systems, controlling it remotely over the Web, and putting it in mobile devices. Given our history and where our products come from, our platform is there ready to take advantage of all of that.

You have won awards as the best places to work in Mexico. What makes NI such as great place to work?

We have won the award four times. It really has to do with the culture of the company. It is a culture where people are encouraged to innovate and where they are given responsibility from day one.

However, it all starts with the hiring process and you have to make sure you hire the right individuals. Once you have that human resource with you, then what you do is give them responsibility and encourage innovation, and that keeps everyone loving what they do.

So everyone is happy to come to work and happy to contribute to however many challenges that are ahead of us. Everyone knows what the challenges and the goals are. As a result, we are trying to make it work as a single ship.

We are very proud of being one of the best places to work in Mexico.

What are your ambitions for the company in the next five years?

The first thing is that we are truly a new player in the energy and the oil and gas markets. As a result, we need to position ourselves and become a well-known established player in this market. In the academic and test sectors we are pretty well known, but not in oil and gas. I would say one of the goals is to be well positioned.

In Mexico, even though oil and gas are crucial and the potential is huge, there are other areas. If you think about Mexico as a country, the food industry is also huge and the mining industry is growing.

What about automotive?

In automotive we are well positioned, and from our corporate beginnings, this industry has always been in our core as part of our vision. But you have to focus on something and for now, our priority is Energy with its raising importance in the economy of Mexico.

On a personal level what motivates you to come to work for NI every day?

The opportunity we have. The number one thing that motivates me is to empower the Mexican engineer. That is really what I like and from day one that is what I saw. We have all the tools.

Once someone told me that an engineer is only as good as his tools. That has a lot of truth. What we have are very good and very powerful tools. We live in an extremely competitive world. Sometimes our engineers do magic with scarce resources. So if we, as a company, can provide Mexican engineers with tools, to make sure the companies stay in Mexico, and grow in Mexico, that will enable us to grow our economy through the development of Mexican engineering. That is what motivates me every day.

We have seen it. We have success stories where customers have told us “We have been competing against Hungary and China and we are staying in Mexico because we are more productive, and we are more productive because of your tools.” That is the best thing to hear at the end of the day.

What is your final message?

The time to act is now. As a country and as an industry, this is our best opportunity. The conditions in the world are ripe and if we do not take action, others like Brazil will start eating away our share. So really, it is the time to have a clear vision, to act, to deliver good and solid results on whatever we have to do. This is for not only me, but also Pemex and our competitors.

If we do our jobs right it will benefit us all in the end. The richness of Mexico is huge in terms of natural resources so it is just a matter of us getting really serious on this and really taking advantage of what we have.

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