As the first article on our blog we thought of starting from the base, explaining what are the characteristics that differentiate an industrial computer from a computer for private or office use.
From this first premise there are already differences in terms of scope of use. Office and consumer PCs are developed for private or personal use and, being machines managed by a user, they are always placed in controlled environments with domestic operating temperatures and limited uses during the day. They also have a cycle of use limited in time and linked to the evolution of the PC ecosystem especially for what it concerns operating systems, programs and peripherals. Consequently also their life cycle is limited over time; an office computer is typically available in a time frame ranging from 3 to 6 months before the manufacturer disposes its replacement with a new model.
The use of a computer for industrial applications is instead very different. In fact, industrial PCs act as supervisors and/or controllers of industrial machines and plants. They operate very often without the presence of an operator and continuously in the so-called 24/7 mode (use 24 hours a day, 7 days a week). The area in which they are used is extremely varied; from controlled to extreme environments characterized by temperature changes, high humidity levels, presence of dust and corrosive elements.
Below we will find an analysis of the characteristics of an industrial PC and how it meets the various application requirements
1) EXTENDED STABILITY AND LIFECYCLE:
Industrial PCs are used (as a subsystem) in machinery, devices and systems that have a long life cycle (sometimes more than 10 years) and have been developed by selecting components that can follow this life cycle. This applies not only to key components such as CPUs and chipsets but also and above all to the list of components that are part of the system. In terms of processors and chipsets in fact the major vendors such as Intel, AMD and NXP offer product lines dedicated to the industrial and automotive markets with guaranteed life cycles ranging from 7 to 15 years. It is then the task of the industrial PC manufacturer to adopt a list of components that has a life cycle compatible with that of the processors adopted. Generally the industrial PCs we distribute enjoy a lifecycle of at least 5 years for finished systems and up to 10-15 years for sub-systems such as modules and boards for embedded projects. The stability of industrial PCs is another key feature in terms of product certifications. The possibility of buying the same object over time allows the manufacturer not to have to carry out continuous re-certification processes on its machinery.
2) STRENGTH: TEMPERATURES, HUMIDITY, SHOCK, VIBRATIONS AND OTHER ELEMENTS
The application field of an industrial PC is extremely varied. Very often the "industrial" definition identifies various types of markets and applications with different characteristics and needs (industrial automation, telecommunications, medical systems, transportation systems, etc.). Therefore, within what are called "industrial" applications there are different standards of robustness required depending on the application.
Operating temperature: it is often considered the main discriminating factor between an industrial PC and an office PC. Generally, industrial PCs have higher operating temperatures that can reach up to -40 ° to + 85 ° C. The MTBF (Mean Time Between Failures) of a system vary drastically depending on their operating temperature. Suppose that in an industrial plant the temperature is constant at 40 ° C. With the same architecture and components, a system developed to operate from 0 ° to 70 ° C will definitively have a higher MTBF than a system developed to operate from 0 ° to 50 ° C. Beyond the choice of the components there are therefore constructive criteria able to guarantee high temperature ranges; thermal analysis and the study of the dissipation are therefore two fundamental aspects in the development of a system for industrial use.
Shock and Vibration: this is another extremely variable aspect depending on the application. Industrial PCs are very often integrated into machine tools and other devices that generate a high level of shock and vibration. Another even more extreme case is represented by those systems installed on board vehicles such as trains, buses, subways, etc. There are therefore international standards and regulations to be respected and different technical approaches resulting from them. A common approach is to avoid the presence of moving mechanical parts such as HDDs and fans if possible. The use of solid-state memories, for example, allows the elimination of a very fragile item such as the Hard Disk. In the most heavy applications, the PC manufacturer even intervenes at the design level with precautions such as the use of soldering type components (SMD) for functions that are usually delegated to peripherals on sockets such as RAM and flash memories.
Relative humidity, water tightness and corrosive elements: very often the industrial environment is characterized by high levels of humidity, sometimes with the presence of condensation. PCs for industrial use are protected to operate in the presence of high humidity levels. If we talk about HMI applications based on Panel PCs a further requirement is water tightness as very often the operator works with wet hands and/or in the presence of splashes of water and other liquids. A further requirement is that of being able to clean the industrial PC as for example in the case of computers placed on food production lines. In other applications there is even the presence of corrosive elements. In these cases the conformal coating procedure of the electronic boards is required, which consists in the application of a protective resin on components and PCBs in order to offer protection from corrosion.
Fault Tolerance and reduction of machine downtime: industrial PCs often act as controllers and/or supervisors of machinery and industrial plants and for this reason they must guarantee the maximum level of reliability to avoid costly downtime and/or production data loss. A frequent cause of machine downtime is the sudden lack of power that can be caused by a number of reasons. The power supply as a power element has an inherent fragility. Indeed, one of the main differences between industrial PCs and consumer PCs concerns the power supply. Industrial PC power supplies are based on selected components that can guarantee high levels of MTBF. Very often redundant power supplies are also used that can guarantee the continuity of operations even in the event of failure of the main power supply. Most of industrial PCs have an input for extended power supply from 9 to 36 VDC, in some cases even 9 to 48 VDC to be able to be powered with a typical cabinet voltage of 24 VDC. Very often the industrial environment is also characterized by the presence of unstable power sources that can be faced only with features such as over-voltage and over-current protections.
Another feature of industrial PCs is related to the BIOS that offers dedicated functions for the industrial market. For example, the watchdog allows you to automatically reset the system in the case of a failure. Furthermore, in many industrial boards the BIOS also provides multi-event watchdogs that allow you to set various corrective actions before proceeding with the system reset. Moreover very often the board manufacturer offers software utilities to make significant changes to the BIOS: for example saving the BIOS customizations as default BIOS, implementing your own logo on the boot screens, setting passwords to prevent unauthorized people from accessing the BIOS , store a log of the boot cycles and hours of use of the machine, etc.
Finally, industrial PCs are generally built with criteria that guarantee maximum ease of maintenance. Peripherals that are more affected to failures such as HDDs are managed in RAID mode and mounted with removable drawers with access from the outside. Some of our Industrial PCs also offer access from the outside to the CMOS battery, to the SIM card slot and to other various slots for solid-state memories that are often used as a read-only boot device. In combination with the use of embedded operating systems such as Windows 7 Embedded or Windows 10 IoT Enterprise, it is also possible to activate protections on the system registers to allow their integrity in the event of sudden machine shutdowns without the need of performing the normal shut-down procedure.
Correct system sizing and customization: Industrial PCs are typically configured and assembled according to the individual needs of the customer while in the office world the level of customization is typically low. In the design phase it is possible to discuss with the supplier all the aspects that characterize the project itself. It typically starts from the operating system to be used which represents the first constraint to be respected as the underlying hardware must have all the compatible drivers according to the operating system chosen. It then moves on to analyze other requirements such as the required computing power, I/O interfaces, power supply, storage needs, robustness parameters, required certifications, expandability, future scalability and availability over time.