PLCs & PACs / Systems Integration / Industrial Computers

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

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 ( "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 ( 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. ( "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 ( in Bad Oeynhausen, Germany, is using Kontron's ( 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."

IPC Upstages DCS

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).

For example, to maintain tight and consistent control of 76 control points on its 45 fermentation tanks that annually produce 74,000 barrels of 24 different brands of beer, Bell's Brewery ( in Kalamazoo, Mich., recently migrated from single-loop controls for each tank to Siemens Industry's ( Braumat PCS 7 Compact control and automation system, which also was 20% less expensive than using single-loop controls. Braumat PCS 7 Box compresses the functions of a DCS into a compact industrial PC platform, which also includes an integrated, hardened controller that operates independently of the PC (Figure 1).

Bell's had been performing precision temperature control using single-loop controllers, but this method had drawbacks because it requires manually recording tank temperatures, which is very labor-intensive and prone to human error. "We were aware of the new brew-house controls that Siemens had released for small brewers," says John Mallett, Bell's production manager. "Initially, we were interested in its application to our fermentation process because it could centrally control the temperatures of all 76 tank temperature control points from one location. However, we soon recognized that it could achieve a much more precise level of temperature control than what we could ever achieve manually with single-loop controllers. Previously, we'd set our temperature parameters daily, and then manually check tank temperatures once or twice a day. The new Siemens system can record tank temperatures as frequently as every second and adjust the process automatically to maintain desired temperature profiles. This offered us a new level of precision in fermentation temperature control."

Braumat PCS 7 Compact consists of Siemens' Simatic PCS 7 Box integrated with its Braumat Compact library, which has all the functions for automation, monitoring, control and engineering a brewery. The Braumat Compact libraries for brewing were released to the craft brewery market in 2006. Also, PCS 7 Box is a hybrid PLC/DCS unit, providing the features of a PLC and DCS in a crossover application suitable for hybrid industries.

Consequently, Bell reports that its new fermentation control system has given it quicker throughput, reduced labor, and made its overall system easier to operate. "We considerably reduced our labor hours by putting in the new system," adds Mallett. "Doing one or two manual checks per day for each fermentation tank typically was a two- to three-person activity. Now, this is all controlled from one central location in a fraction of the time. These man hours are now being put to use on other activities in the brewery. With efficiencies like this, we will continue to systematically integrate our other brew-house functions into the system."
Extra Space, Future Places

Now, while everyone knows IPCs are getting smaller, it's less well known what developers and users are doing with the freedom of having a little more room to invent.

"A smaller computer lets us be more creative with its packaging, making it smaller and lighter, able to handle more extreme temperatures and allows more portable designs," says Hardaway. "We saw a void for IPCs that were even more rugged than Toughbooks, and so we designed ours to help with down-hole readings on off-shore oil rigs and then move quickly between different sites. Users couldn't bring PCs into many of these areas before because they weren't portable and weren't on non-incendive circuits, so they had to be in 'doghouses' or trailers, or users had to employ keyboard-video-mouse (KVM) boxes and cabling to extend lines into hazardous environments." Daisy Data's RigMate PCs are rated for Class 1, Div 2 or Zone 2 applications and have touchscreens, fanless cooling, WiFi and Bluetooth wireless and GPS capabilities for locating equipment.

In addition, despite all the technological gains that industrial PCs have made recently, the well of ideas still refills pretty quickly, and so the flow of innovations seems more than likely to continue. For example, Unmanned Ocean Vehicles Inc. ( near Fredericksburg, Va., is using Opto 22's ( industrially hardened SNAP programmable automation controller (PAC) and I/O modules to control and coordinate wind, photovoltaic and motion power sources on its 20-foot prototype; store the energy they gather in batteries; use it to power the UOV's on-board propeller; and even navigate. The company reports that its vessels, also known as "satellites of the sea," can travel and operate for up to two years, performing tasks such as bottom mapping, hurricane and storm tracking, and climate monitoring by gathering wind speeds, water temperatures, humidity, barometric pressure and other variables.

"These vehicles can be outfitted to sense, detect and perform the same functions as many manned ships," says Payne Kilbourn, UOV's founder and owner. "The difference is that the UOV is much more cost-effective to operate because it doesn't require fuel, on-board personnel or provisions. Plus, our vehicles can also be deployed and continue to collect scientific data in hurricanes and other conditions where having a manned ship would put lives in jeopardy."

As a result, SNAP PAC serves as a central controller that uses both serial and Ethernet communication to connect to and regulate a multi-vendor team of microcontrollers and marine instrumentation, each with its own area of responsibility, including controlling and rotating the UOV's rigid, winged sail, steering and power management (Figure 2).

Kilbourn adds that he used SNAP PAC's ability to run up to 16 software charts concurrently in one control program, and so the UOV's charts also execute concurrently and all share data. For example, a chart identified as "Captain" includes all the wind-speed monitoring commands, executes the logic needed to determine when to turn the motor on and off, controls at what speed it should run. Meanwhile, the "Navigator" chart uses data from the "Captain" to calculate and decide what course to steer, and it also gauges where the vehicle is with respect to where it's supposed to be.

Meanwhile, Trident Systems' payload interface master module (PIMM) interfaces with the PAC to let UOV transmit Ethernet-based data via high-frequency radio. Other PIMMs connect to onshore computers, and if the UOV is operating near the coast, real-time instrument data from the vehicle is aggregated from the SNAP PAC wirelessly over radio networks. At all times, operators have full access to the control program and can modify any of the UOV's functions, including changing course, repositioning the sail and adjusting speed.


Jim Montague is Control's Executive Editor