The need for manufacturing companies to be able to access their operational data so they can make informed decisions is, by now, well established. This realization does not mean that the path forward is clearly defined, however. Many hardware and software options are available, although not all are suitable for industrial applications.
The always-on nature of operational technology (OT) systems makes it clear that any industrial internet of things (IIoT) devices must be correspondingly robust. This capability is required for these systems to reliably connect with, manipulate, and transport data to the information technology (IT) systems, where users and applications could access the results.
Traditional programmable logic controllers (PLCs) usually do not have the required in-built computing capability, so more capable edge controllers are a superior option. However, in many new and retrofit projects, the most flexible edge computing option is an industrial PC (IPC), but only if it is built to survive and is outfitted with the right OT-centric software.
The industrial edge is where all the most relevant data sources are located—as well as extremes of shock, vibration, contaminants, and temperature. High heat is a particular enemy of digital devices and requires special attention.
Not only will typical consumer- or commercial-grade IT devices fail early in edge environments, but the typical IT device lifetime of three years is well below OT equipment lifespans, which can extend a decade or more. Another problem with PCs at the edge is that IT personnel are much scarcer at these locations, making support difficult.
While many vendors tout their products as IPCs, users in the field have discovered there is some variability to these claims. Some IPCs may not be tested stringently enough, and others may only meet specifications by compromising other performance aspects. And down the road, these IPCs simply may not offer the scalability and longevity needed for OT projects.
Truly industrial IPCs
To properly meet performance and reliability demands, industrial users need IPCs built by organizations intimately familiar with OT conditions. Industry experts with broad OT experience know how to design a PC for the target environment, test it rigorously, ensure a long support lifecycle, and package it with the options and scalability needed for IIoT projects.
Thermal design is a primary concern. Careful design will consider primary components like CPUs (central processing units) and secondary components like SSDs (solid-state drives), and will ensure that heat sinks and thermal conductive paths are optimized to avoid hot spots. In some cases, patented IPC thermal designs and strict testing protocols can result in operating temperatures about 10°C lower than traditional IPCs would experience in a similar environment, delivering life expectancy improvements.
End users appreciate IPCs with a reasonable set of configuration options—just enough to meet their needs while simplifying ordering and stocking. Similarly, modular designs enabled by a COM Express architecture are popular because they make future upgrades easier.
Users should also look for IPCs designed to meet their thermal ratings at 100% CPU performance, following a zero-throttle principal, in zero airflow conditions. Some IPCs may only be able to meet specifications by throttling their CPUs or by assuming cabinet airflow, both of which may be unacceptable in real-world conditions.
While many digital edge devices come with their own software onboard, an edge IPC must be equipped with the necessary OT-centric software packages. The operating system is commonly installed in IPCs, but some users prefer the option of obtaining an IPC with no operating system so they can build it up from scratch to meet their exact requirements or install their proprietary software.
Industrial software is obviously available as a separate purchase, but many users prefer the streamlined experience and advantages of selecting software suites from an OT expert that also offers IPCs, perhaps even pre-installed on the IPC as it is procured.
Because IPCs may be used in many types of applications, there are many common roles enabled by various software suites:
- IIoT data collection;
- Visualization for local, remote, or mobile users;
- Gateway for higher level enterprise systems and cloud connectivity; and
- Analytical computing.
An IPC may carry out one, many, or all of these roles. Therefore, for projects using more than one software suite, it is often prudent to obtain all software from a single vendor to improve interoperability, reduce development cost, and provide a single point of accountability.
IPCs for merging OT with IT
End users, systems integrators, and OEMs are increasingly finding they need to build-in IIoT capabilities, or add them to their automated machines and systems. The digital transformation journey calls for installing hardware and software for gathering little data from edge locations, performing a degree of pre-processing, and then transmitting the results to higher-level systems, where it becomes big data.
A truly industrial IPC installed at the edge and configured with edge-capable software is often the best platform for implementing IIoT projects, but not all IPCs are created equal. Obtaining an IPC and software from a committed industrial expert with deep OT experience ensures expected performance, simplifies the ordering process, and is the most reliable way to achieve the best results.