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By Jim Montague, Executive Editor
Get used to being off balance because the data processing revolution's surf is up and the waves just keep rolling in. Maybe you can learn to surf.
Seriously, it seems like computers in general and industrial PCs (IPCs) in particular will never stop getting smaller, faster, more powerful and less expensive. And these ongoing changes will keep driving developers and users to deploy computers in new process applications where it would have been too difficult or costly to use them just a short time ago.
"The biggest change in industrial computing has been the growth of solid-state, non-rotating media, but now the prices for them are going down, too. In fact, a 40-gigabyte Intel hard drive that cost $1000 or more about three years ago is now about $140," says Ralph D‘Amato, vice president of product development at Nematron (www.nematron.com). "Likewise, Intel's 1.6-GHz Atom processor only uses 5 watts of power, compared to 30 watts for its Core Duo processor, and non-rotating media means a lot less heat in the enclosure, which makes it a lot easier to go fanless, run at a wider temperature range and still be better protected from shock and other problems."
In addition, these recent advances in IPCs are enabling developers to give them even more computing capabilities. Joe Primeau, sales and marketing director for Acromag's (www.acromag.com) Embedded Solutions Group, reports that it and some other developers spent the past 18 months creating small I/O boards that can be easily plugged into a built-in, four-slot carrier card in a drawer in its Industrial I/O Server computer. Similar to PC104 cards, these boards are expected to have more success because IPCs' recent gains in heat dissipation are making Acromag's induction-cooled IOS cards easier to use. The four main categories for these different IOS cards are analog in and out, digital in and out, serial communications via RS-232, RS-485 and CANbus, and field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) that can be programmed by users.
"In the past, IPCs had to be connected to networks that were tied to PLCs and DAQ systems, and they would process and display data, and then move it to a server. So now the idea has been that the PC could stand alone and do all these jobs by itself if we could just get some I/O in the box," says Primeau. "Consequently, instead of using PLCs on a big, traditional VME rack that costs $10,000, users can now use an IPC and cards for $1,000 to $3,000."
Of course, Moore's Law, physical limits, business cycles and even common-sense would seem to dictate that ever-faster and more-capable computing would have to slow down at some point. However, everyone from PC builders to chip fabricators always seems to come up with some way to avoid or put off the threat of those physical limits—which usually means preventing or getting rid of heat."As PCs grow faster and smaller, the main issue is how to get heat away from it so it won't melt," adds Michael Hardaway, general manager of Daisy Data Displays Inc. (www.d3inc.net). "Fans and heat sinks are the traditional methods, but we've also been working on vortex tube cooling devices that use compressed air, and we've also been working with Factory Mutual to get them approved for use in hazardous areas. We're also seeing more use of LEDs for backlit displays, and these also use less power, which also means less heat. One of the things we see coming is new materials for central processing units (CPUs) that can better handle the heat."
For instance, iNOEX GmbH (www.inoex.de) in Bad Oeynhausen, Germany, is using Kontron's (www.kontron.com) Nano Client with Intel's Atom Z5xx processor, System Controller Hub US15W, and a stainless-steel housing as a visualization client and HMI for its new ECCO ultrasonic measurement system. Typically serving in extremely hot and dusty settings, ECCO is used by extruded plastic pipe manufacturers to achieve much faster pipe centering and optimum wall thickness. Its measurement technology for 10-in. pipes enables die-heads for producing large-sized and thick-walled pipes to be quickly centered, which greatly reduces start-up scrap and saves costs.
"Previously, there was no way to directly measure the wall thickness of a pipe in a vacuum tank during the extrusion process," says Martin Deters, iNOEX's technical director. "Pipes could only be measured after they were extruded and cooled, and only then could use make any necessary adjustment of the die-head. This process wasted a great deal of time and material, and users were not always sure whether the die was set precisely for the second attempt. This has now changed with the introduction of the new ECCO centering unit, which is suitable for pipes made of PE, PP and PVC, and can be used for pipe diameters starting at 90 mm and wall thicknesses from 1.8 mm to 120 mm."
Deters adds that much credit for ECCO's success goes to Nano Client and its Atom processor's 1.6-GHz CPU and maximum of 1024 MB of soldered RAM, which allow Nano Client to run even demanding web-based visualizations. "This processor technology fits perfectly into Java and Linux's software environments. Because it produces less heat, Atom enables more robust, fully enclosed system designs. Compared to previous x86 systems with similar performance, Atom has improved power dissipation, and so it runs much cooler, too. Also, Atom-based system designs can be flatter and more compact."
Likewise, these and other advances are enabling IPCs and PC-based controls to take on jobs traditionally performed by programmable logic controllers (PLCs) and distributed control systems (DCSs).