Innovation in Industrial PCs

Surf's Up: Users and Developers Are Keeping Their Heads Above the Incoming Waves of Innovation Driven by Smaller, Faster, Cheaper and Stronger Industrial PCs. Here's How They Stay Afloat

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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."

Beating the Heat

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."
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