Computers in a Nutshell

Industrial PCs Can Take Almost Any Form These Days, but Many Users Still Need Protected and Enclosed Hard Drives, Screens, Keyboards and Other Interfaces in Increasingly Harsh and Varied Settings

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By Jim Montague, Executive Editor

The industrial PC is dead, so long live the industrial PC! Many events unfold in mysterious ways, and the counterintuitive paths along which many technologies evolve offer some fine examples. For instance, computers were supposed to rid the world of paper, but users probably print more now than ever. Software was supposed to be the death of most hardware, but better data processing instead fueled a mini-renaissance in sensors and other field devices. Wireless was logically supposed to eliminate hardwiring, but all those transmitters, receivers and antennas usually need wiring at either end. You can see where this going.

Similarly, industrial PCs (IPCs) have morphed into an almost infinite variety of unconventional forms, many of which don't need the same protection as their screen-and-keyboard counterparts. Data processing can happen on DIN-rails, in cabinets, far-flung field devices or even in chips and connectors on networks. Likewise, flash memory doesn't need as much protection as hard drives, fans and other rotating media.

So I guess we don't need good old industrial PCs anymore, right? Uh, wrong. In the same way that computers unexpectedly spurred increased use of hardware, it appears that the growing diversity of data processing in its various forms may actually being attracting more users into trying and adopting IPCs in new place. For instance, if you've got messages and reports coming in from some smart field devices, where are they going to go? More than likely, they'll go to an IPC, and if it needs to be on or near a plant floor, it will need some protection.

"Everybody has new signals coming in from wireless and other piggy-backed communication modes, so computing is going drawn into places it couldn't go before," says Thomas Morrisey, technical product manager for Wonderware's (global.wonderware.com) mobile solutions division. "For example, our IntelaTrac software template is being used more often on rugged, mobile handsets by field operators and plant-floor folks when they go out on their rounds to capture readings and trends. At the same time, these mobile, handheld IPCs have better sealing, better IP-rating compliance and are more rugged, so failure rates have dropped from 20% to 30% about 10 years ago to just 5% to 10% today." 

Application Defines Protection

"Industrial PCs will continue to be used and will not go away, though new modifications will undoubtedly be made as new requirements continue to arise in both batch and continuous process applications and in discrete factory automation applications," says Francisco Tacoa, Pro-Face America's (www.profaceamerica.com) product marketing director. "IPCs are no longer restricted by their outward appearance, and are defined only by their microprocessor, memory and I/O components, and then what protection they'll need in industrial settings."

For example, a poultry processing division of 2 Sisters Food Group (www.2sfg.co.uk), formerly John Rannoch Foods in Haughley Park, Suffolk, U.K., recently installed 35 PC-Guard (www.pcguard.co.uk) terminals as part of its factory network. Each terminal is contained in a stainless steel enclosure that meets IP 67 specifications for hostile/wet environments, and includes a separate cabinet for a bar code label printer. These temperature-controlled terminals also include PC-Guard's integral bar code laser scanners, touch-button mouse controls  and membrane-touch keyboards.

Locating these terminals close to the poultry processor's production control system was crucial because every move of material into, inside and leaving is recorded by scanning its bar code or by printing a new label. The bar codes also provide traceability for every product and ingredient shipped by the factory. Also, the system software schedules orders, sets priorities and procures raw materials. This previously meant lots of manual printing and distribution of computer schedules and completion of manual records for each batch process. Now, the terminal's screens present a production schedule at every workstation. Processing each order takes up to 48 hours and involves eight to 10 stages from killing the chickens through to cutting up, flavoring, cooking, packing and shipping.

"Instead of people manually recording what they used or made, they can scan the information from the bar code label or print a label, and attach it to the item to pass the information on through the system," says Paul Nix, 2 Sisters' plant information systems manager. He estimates that using the protected PC-Guard terminals saved about 2% on total labor per year, or £330K to £500K annually, and so the terminals paid for themselves in about nine months. "Since our products and many ingredients we use have a limited shelf life, we must have complete visibility of our production status to control stock and procurement of materials. The new system and terminals let us minimize waste, deploy our workforce more efficiently and fill customer orders more efficiently."

Going Fanless

One of the best ways to protect an IPC is to update its memory storage technology so it doesn't need as much protection. Developers and suppliers are doing this today by moving from hard drives and fans to flash cards, USB drives and even solid-state hard drives. Because these newer media don't move or get as hot, they don't need fans, which means less contamination, clogged filters and damage. "The most recent method is solid-state drives that don't have any mechanical parts  and store on high-capacity chips," says Tacoa. "In fact, Pro-Face is launching a solid-state drive (SSD) too. Its main benefits are less shock and vibration, but it can also make IPCs smaller, more immune to EMF interference, operate in a wider temperature range, and need less protection and sealing. The prices on these had been higher, but they're coming down. So even though IPCs with SSDs might cost more, they will have better cost of ownership."    

The benefits of non-rotating storage media become immediately obvious in settings like coal mines, where one of Advantech's (www.advantech.com) users has incorporated its PCM-4381 single-board computer into its digging, scooping and conveying machines. Because the mining machine is too dangerous to have operators nearby when it's running, it's remotely operated by an administrator in a secure server room watching a monitor. PCM-4381 was integrated into the mining machine to help with monitoring and remote control. This makes it easier for operators to use a digital camera to display mining progress, as well as receive and monitor gas sensor information. Advantech reports that its single-board computer is able to survive in the mine because its fanless design increases system reliability, even in a heavy dust environment; its compact size simplifies system integration and maintenance; and its embedded OS and software application program interface (API) support speeds system design cycles.

The Future of IPCs

"The path forward is already very clear. As PC processor manufacturers add more cores, IPC makers will follow with ruggedized versions," says Graham Harris, president of Beckhoff Automation (www.beckhoff.com). "When processor cores hit 8-, 16-, 32-cores and on, one industrial PC will begin to make a PLC look like an old rotary telephone competing with a 3G iPhone. Besides automation, control and HMI, one IPC can  take on more measurement, asset management and data acquisition functions, and begin to move into fuzzy logic, neural networks, artificial intelligence at near-human levels and more. As IPCs processing power continues to increase, the capacity to implement revolutionary functions for automation and far beyond grows right along with it.  


Jim Montague is Control's executive editor.

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