Industrial PCs are all grown up

Jan. 18, 2005
Senior Technical Editor Dan Hebert, PE, notes that industrial PCs have matured from similar-looking, pre-packaged desktop PCs to products specifically designed for particular process automation applications.

 By Dan Hebert, PE, Senior Technical Editor

One clear sign of a mature market is involvement of major vendors. In the early days of industrial PCs, small vendors simply repackaged desktop PCs and called them industrial PCs. Nowadays, major worldwide vendors such as GE Fanuc, Phoenix Contact, and Rockwell Automation build industrial PCs from the ground up to meet stringent process automation requirements. Industrial PCs are clearly a mature technology with clear market drivers: faster, cheaper, smaller, and more reliable.

Not only are automation majors involved, so are large commercial vendors like Intel and Microsoft. “Intel continues to develop high-speed, low-power microprocessors specifically for the Windows CE operating system,” says Paul Daugherty, the manager of operator interfaces for GE Fanuc Automation. In fact, Intel has developed an entire line of processors ideally suited to industrial applications. “Our Industrial PC family leverages Intel processor advancements, especially the high-speed and low-power microprocessors in the Pentium M product family,” adds Daugherty.

Another clear sign of market maturity is the creation of standards administered by independent foundations, as opposed to standards promoted and controlled by single vendors.

PXI (PCI eXtensions for Instrumentation) takes advantage of PCI, the standard high-speed architecture driving today’s most popular desktop computer software and hardware. “The PXI specification defines an industrial version of the PCI bus architecture with rugged packaging for superior mechanical integrity,” says Gricha Raether, product manager for National Instruments.


"Industrial PCs are clearly a mature technology with clear market drivers: faster, cheaper, smaller, and more reliable."

We mentioned smaller, faster, cheaper, and more reliable as the new market drivers for industrial PCs. One company has taken the smaller mantra to heart. “Recent advancements have allowed us to build smaller, more powerful computer systems ideal for deployment into areas that previous systems would not fit,” observes Ed Boutilier, the president and CEO of Stealth Computer.

Faster is another driver. Many process automation applications in back-end packaging systems need more speed than is available with PLCs or standard PC architectures. “Our newest architectures support dual-channel memory and dedicated data paths for high data volume devices to balance system throughput,” says Benny Feng, product manager with Advantech’s Industrial Automation Group.

“We are constantly increasing the processing power of our systems, finding ways to lower heat dissipation, and producing products with standardization in mind. We are also balancing PCI bus traffic and redesigning motherboards to make everything run as quickly as the hardware will allow,” adds Feng.

Yet another sign of industrial PC market maturity is the application of commercial technology. Flat-screen monitors were always a natural fit for industrial applications, but prices were prohibitively high. High commercial demand has driven down prices to a point where industrial PCs with integrated flat-screen displays are often the least expensive way to monitor and control a process.

“Industrial PCs allow a company to use one standard platform for SCADA and control applications,” claims Graham Harris, president of Beckhoff Automation. “HMI software to run a SCADA application and real-time control software such as IEC 1131 compliant systems can turn a PC into a process automation controller.”

One of the main concerns for industrial applications is reliability, and one way to increase reliability is to design out moving parts. “Non-rotating mass storage devices such as compact flash drives are replacing standard rotating hard drives,” says Bjoern Falke, a product specialist with Phoenix Contact.

Industrial PCs have matured from similar-looking pre-packaged desktop PCs to products specifically designed for particular process automation applications. Nothing is more specific to process automation applications than hazardous areas, and many vendors now make industrial PCs that meet Class 1, Division 2 requirements.

According to GE Fanuc’s Daugherty, Class 1 Division 1 products are also on the near-term horizon: “One distinct advantage of an LED backlit display is potential for the development of a Class 1, Division 1 operator interface that can be applied without expensive explosion-proof enclosures.”

Another requirement of many process control applications is orderly shutdown in case of power loss. Industrial PCs from GE Fanuc support a battery-backed option that provides up to 30 minutes of operational time if power is lost.

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