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Industrial Computing for the Edge

With more data processing taking place at the machine level—on the edge of the industrial network—GE is betting on greater use of modular, customizable industrial PCs.

Some of GE's new IPCs on display at Embedded World 2017.
Some of GE's new IPCs on display at Embedded World 2017.

One of the clear trends across industry these days is the move toward greater use of edge computing devices for on-site analysis and insights. This trend is a major motivator behind GE’s introduction of its Industrial Internet Control System (IICS). As GE Automation and Control’s Rich Carpenter recently said, “The edge of the Industrial Internet is really controls, no matter how you look at it. [So] we have had to rethink and reimagine what it means to be a controller.”

This viewpoint of controls being the edge of the Industrial Internet speaks volumes about evolving computing needs at the control layer. It’s also one of the reasons behind industry technology suppliers’ increased focus on the edge.

GE contends that traditional control systems are often inadequate for realizing the full potential of the Industrial Internet because they are self-contained and operate on a simple closed loop, whereas the IICS connects distributed controls and pools local streams of data for simultaneous processing and analysis.

“IICS is the pathway to the next stage of the Industrial Internet. We are going beyond Big Data, as it is not just about data volume anymore, but using data more effectively. Not all data needs to be sent to the cloud; efficient data processing starts at the machine level,” said Rudolf Krumenacker, head of engineering and site leader at GE in Augsburg, Germany.

In support of GE’s announcement that its IICS is now available in Europe, the company also announced the release of its new series of industrial PCs (IPCs), which it claims “mark the end of the era of maximizing the degree of standardization in IPCs and introduces a new concept of modular design, allowing [for] a new level of customizing IPCs to specific client needs.”

In a meeting with Krumenacker at Embedded World 2017, he explained that this new line of IPCs are modular in terms of connectivity, housing, cooling and horsepower, and can operate in temperatures ranging from -20 to +80 degrees C. He noted that GE has a patent on the thermal cooling technology used in these IPCs, which allows them to operate in higher-than-normal temperature environments. The IPCs also have four processing cores so that functions can be divided and applied as needed, as well as RAID systems to protect the data collected.

“Our new, customized IPCs deliver on the promise of lower total cost of ownership, because users are only paying for the features they want. And when compared to standardized products, they require less maintenance and have longer lifecycles,” Krumenacker said.

Vibhoosh Gupta, senior product manager for GE Automation and Control, said that the modularity in these IPCs provides multiple benefits, especially for edge analytic purposes—particularly as it applies to prolonging the lifecycle of the IPC platform. “You can have the similar form factor box and keep pace with technology by changing the COM Express modules inside the box,” Gupta explained.

Noting that all assets are not the same and don’t have similar analytics requirements in Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) applications, Gupta pointed out that assets will thus have different requirements from an interface perspective. They may even have different requirements with respect to their form factor and shape.

“With modularity, we can design the custom carrier board and the chassis to meet the space and form factor requirements around the asset, and then marry it with the right COM Express module to create a perfect edge analytic IPC for the customer,” he said.

Explaining GE’s decision to develop this new line of modular IPCs, Gupta said that, after talking to our customers, “we realized that modular IPCs are the best way to allay some of the biggest concerns that they have.” Some of these concerns include:

  • Lifecycle. “Considering that the processor technology lifecycle is around five (active) to two (mature) years, customers are really concerned about how to increase the life of their controls and edge nodes without major redesign of the entire asset,” Gupta said.
  • Keeping pace with the technology. “Given Moore’s Law, customers want to do more with their asset over its lifecycle without requiring major redesigns. Modularity allows them to keep the design of their machine intact and still give them a path to upgrade their assets with higher performance COM Express modules as technology evolves.”
  • Price/performance match. “With the modular COM Express, we can provide different performance points in the same form factor for different applications to meet their price/performance needs.”

In terms of applications where modular, customizable IPCs could prove to be a better choice than standard IPCs, Gupta said custom IPCs are a better choice when “the customer wants to put the analytics closer to the machine in a seamless fashion. For example, we have customers in the healthcare industry who are essentially using the same edge analytics stack on their healthcare machines as our customers in the power gen industry, because the COM Express module is essentially the same but the carrier board and the chassis are different due to different space requirements in respective applications.”

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