Control Amplified

Why modularization matters for today’s industrial PCs

May 31, 2023
A Control Amplified podcast with Marc Seissler, head of product management for HMI, and Aaron Severa, regional product manager and Level 2 technical support, both of Pepperl+Fuchs.

In today’s industry, the trend is to move away from standalone PCs. Why? Many end-users in the process industries find benefits in modularization.

Marc Seissler and Aaron Severa, both of Pepperl+Fuchs, recently talked to Control editor-in-chief Len Vermillion about industrial PC trends and process automation to provide some answers. Seissler is head of product management for HMI and based in the Manheim, Germany, headquarters of Pepperl+Fuchs. Severa is a regional product manager and Level 2 technical support for the Americas region.


Len Vermillion: Let’s talk about technology trends, specifically the trends you see in the industrial PC market.

Marc Seissler: In general, when we talk about industrial PCs, there are basic requirements that are known by the industry. Typically, we talk about rugged devices that give long-term support for end users. This becomes more important, particularly when there are transitions from operating systems and shorter lifecycles at the software and hardware levels. We also try to have a platform that offers long-term availability to customers with operating system migrations.

The big trends that we see today are all-around modularization. What does this mean for HMIs? It typically means that you split the display from the computing technology. The computer is typically a rugged, box PC, and this is now an exchangeable component. In case of an upgrade, or even in case of a failure of the display or the computer, you can migrate or replace these components in the field. That's something we've seen becoming more important in recent years.

What we also see from the overall control system perspective is a strong trend away from standalone industrial PCs to more distributed infrastructure, where you have a thin client in hazardous areas or on the shop floor. You also have a host server somewhere in a more protected area, which runs the software and the applications, while the thin client in the field connects to the host server where the software is executed.

Len Vermillion: What are the benefits of using thin clients instead of industrial PCs?

Aaron Severa: First, I'd say cost savings is a very big benefit to using thin clients. There are some upfront costs and some are long-term costs.Initial costs could be due to some of the lesser-grade hardware that's required in thin clients. For example, a low-power processor has less RAM and there's typically smaller hard drives, which means cost savings can be realized.

Long-term savings can come from a couple of different avenues. The first is from energy consumption. Thin clients use low-power processors. They also use significantly less power than traditional PCs, so you can save on energy costs. Second, thin clients typically have a longer useful lifecycle than traditional PCs, so they're typically replaced much less often. This reduces maintenance and qualification costs. In our experience, thin clients are replaced about half as frequently as PCs.

Another big benefit is security. Within client installations, in most cases, there's no really critical data that's stored locally on the thin client. All that data is stored on the central, IT-implemented server. Other features, such as blocking USB storage devices, as well as right filters and application whitelisting, are things that help keep thin client installations safe and secure.

Another benefit is software management. If you think of a very large installation with many thin clients spread around a big facility, any sort of patch or update you might need to do could become really tedious. This is especially true if you had to add these patches one by one locally at every single thin client in the field.

Luckily, with these thin clients, there are usually great management tools. For example, the Pepperl+Fuchs VisuNet control center allows you to perform these types of updates completely remotely from one central location. This is especially critical in large-scale process automation applications, where facilities may span many acres, and may include hazardous locations or even clean room facilities with restricted areas. So, having the ability to easily access these thin clients from the safety of your office, your desk or the control room is an important time saver that creates a much more efficient maintenance and support structure at the plant.

Len Vermillion: What do you offer in this area, knowing Pepperl+Fuchs has a seamless portfolio?

Aaron Severa: We have a very wide-reaching portfolio that covers an extensive list of area classifications and installation scenarios—from simple things like a small, form factor-boxed thin client, which is a unit without a display to panel mount products, to standalone, pedestal-mounted workstations. Pepperl+Fuchs, especially in process automation, is known for our hazardous location products, and with our HMI portfolio, it's really no different. We cover the complete range of hazardous locations, and we have an HMI product for every one of them—from Zone 2 and Zone 1 products with ATEX and IECEX certifications for Asia and Europe's markets to Division 2 and Division 1 products that comply with the North American certifications, such as UL or Intertek.

On top of that, we have solutions engineering centers (SEC). These are located around the world, and they're fully capable of working with applications that involve any type of customizations or tweaks to our standard products to fit the needs of end-customer installations. This could include tasks like creating a mobile cart-type product that users can wheel around to different areas of the process. Or, it could be something like adding heaters or coolers to a design, or other things like adding pushbuttons or emergency stops to an HMI. The SECs can kind of do a little bit of everything to make products fit perfectly into customers' applications.

Len Vermillion: What are some of the solutions for different verticals?

Marc Seissler: We are set up very broadly, and we work from the life sciences industry to the chemical industry to oil and gas applications with our products. Each of those verticals has different types of applications, which differ in how the end-users operate their plant or their system. When you look at the traditional chemical industry, where continuous production processes (e.g. steam crackers) are implemented, you will hardly find any HMIs on the shop-floor level. Most of those plants are typically controlled from a control room, and in those applications, we see a demand for thin clients but in a form factor-boxed thin client. These devices are typically installed under the tables, etc.

Our users benefit from having the same software and long-term availability on those devices. Since they're rated for higher operating temperature ranges, you can even install them where standard IT equipment might face problems, even due to increased heat under a table.

When you go into a biopharma plants, you may find no control room at all. Their processes are typically batch oriented. Their operators work at the shop-floor level with an HMI system that they use to connect a decentralized control system (DCS), which is often in parallel to a manufacturing execution system (MES) to monitor production tasks they need to execute.

Typically, HMIs are used that are mobile. For these applications, we use mobile cards, which can even be in a setup with a duplex monitor system with one screen having the DCS picture and the other screen having the MES system, which are typically, completely separated from each other. You also find customers or applications that are in between, where there's a control room and operators on the shop-floor level. Those customers benefit from that seamless portfolio, where we have the same software solutions and management capabilities, just in different packaging of the hardware. This is a seamless solution for the process industries, when it comes to thin client solutions.