The Future of the Industrial PC

April 8, 2014
With continued influence from the consumer market, industrial PCs will need more than just the latest processor to differentiate themselves.

Since 2009, the industrial PC (IPC) market, like many automation component markets, has been very fickle. In 2012, it declined slightly, with some companies losing considerable share, as sales to some industries and regions declined dramatically.

In this climate, staying on top of the latest trends and differentiating products from competitors is more important than ever. Computing power is obviously continuing to improve, but merely using the latest processor will not suffice, since any tech company can produce an IPC with a fast processor. Instead, suppliers must look for new innovations and additions they can make to their IPCs.

Often the newest innovations in the industrial computing market will follow those in the consumer market. So what will this mean for industrial PCs? Computing has certainly evolved in recent years. In the consumer market, the desktop PC—with its box or tower, screen, keyboard and mouse, a layout little changed in more than two decades—is in decline. First laptops, then tablets and smartphones have offered more convenient, mobile and easy-to-use computing solutions. Now wearable technology is the next hot topic, leaving the desktop PC looking very outdated.

How does this translate to the industrial PC market? Although mobile computing might be all the rage in the consumer market, in many industrial applications it just is not an option. Wireless and battery power cannot be trusted for the processes an industrial PC needs to carry out, such as controlling important machinery, helping to ensure worker safety, or monitoring delicate processes.

This means it will continue to be necessary to use cables for power and communications for IPCs. This will severely limit mobility, since there is little point in making an IPC more mobile if it must be physically attached to a production line or machine that might weigh several tons. Good luck fitting that in your pocket and taking it to lunch.

Despite this, much of the hardware that has been developed for these mobile products will increasingly be incorporated into industrial PCs. The most obvious example is the capacitive touchscreen. The benefits of capacitive multi-touch screens over analog resistive touchscreens have been discussed at length in recent years, so I won’t dwell on them. But, after years of discussion, IPCs with capacitive screens are finally finding a place in the market. In 2012, panel IPCs with capacitive touchscreens accounted for only 2 percent of the market; however, this percentage is growing rapidly as more suppliers release products with capacitive touch.

Another benefit from more widespread use of mobile devices in the consumer market will be greater use of solid-state drives. IPCs have long used solid-state storage in applications where vibrations make the less robust hard disk drives unusable, although the higher cost of solid-state storage has limited their adoption in other applications. Now, however, the widespread use of solid state in the consumer market has led to both lower costs and new technological developments that make their use more viable in the wider IPC market. This allows more users to take advantage of the higher speed, lower energy consumption and greater ruggedness that solid-state devices offer.

In the future, IPCs will be heavily influenced by consumer devices, both in their hardware, and in how operators interact with them, with mobile devices and wearable technology also likely to become more common in the industrial environment. Many IPCs are even being modeled on consumer devices, with sleek black surfaces and curved edges. But the hardware influences from consumer products are more than just skin deep.

>> George Dickinson, [email protected], is an analyst in industrial automation for IHS.

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