It’s all about the operational environment
An industrial computer is a computing platform that has been ruggedized for specific industrial applications that must function in sometimes harsh environments. Its computing capabilities are generally similar to an equivalent commercial PC in terms of storage, processing and communications. However, industrial computers are often designed to use less power, offer greater reliability, expandability and a significantly longer service life than commercial systems. This analysis of commercial vs. industrial computers discusses the following areas:
- Power consumption
- Operating systems
Commercial computers are typically used in an office environment, while industrial embedded computers are often used in energy management applications such as solar power and wind generators. Industrial automation is another common application for industrial computers, especially robotics and manufacturing control. Other applications that commonly use industrial computers include industrial IoT, transportation management, medical equipment, aerospace, unmanned vehicles and digital signage.
Commercial computers are generally designed to operate in a clean office environment within a relatively narrow operating temperature range and low humidity. Industrial computers must be rugged, reliable and resilient—able to tolerate much greater operating temperature range, be resistant to moisture, corrosive substances, dirt and dust, shocks and vibrations. Physical locations can range from factory floors to outdoors–including under sea, ground, air and space environments.
Consistent performance in challenging environments is a primary consideration for industrial computers. Commercial computers are typically rated for a maximum ambient temperature of 30 to 35 degrees Celsius, where industrial computers should be able to operate at temperatures ranging from -40 degrees Celsius to +85 degrees Celsius. In addition to using higher quality components, some industrial computers also incorporate a number of components specifically designed to increase their reliability in hot operating conditions. These features include solid-state drives (SSDs), soldered-on memory modules and fanless operation.
Industrial computers must also be able to operate in conditions with more heat, dirt and humidity than a commercial computer. In comparison, commercial computers operate in a typical office environment that’s relatively free of dust and humidity, use more power and require fans to control heat.
Many industrial environments are subject to flying parts and continual vibrations caused by powered machinery, so industrial computers must be physically rugged, and are sometimes installed within a steel or aluminum enclosure for added protection. Commercial computers found in desktops, laptops or indoor kiosks only require basic enclosures of plastic or lightweight metal to protect internal components from damage and generally don’t have any ratings at all for shock and vibrations, whereas industrial computers typically have specific ratings for these factors. A common shock tolerance for industrial computers is 5 g, with a vibration tolerance of 0.5 g.
Commercial computers are typically housed in standalone cases of various sizes, whereas industrial computers can be found in various form factors ranging from a 19-inch rackmount motherboard down to 2-inch x 2-inch embedded single board computers.
Commercial computers are frequently built under the assumption they will be replaced in the near future (two to three years), and possibly as soon as the next model is available. Industrial computers are designed to remain in use for five to 10 years, and sometimes longer. Extended service life cuts down on maintenance, lowers the total cost of operation and minimizes risk due to failure. The circuit boards and associated components in these computers are of a much higher quality than those found in commercial computers.
The structure of commercial computers is typically composed of plastic and other lightweight materials that degrade in a relatively short period of time. In comparison, an industrial computer is built from much harder materials such as high-grade steel and aluminum. The capacitors and other electronic components are similarly of higher quality, further extending their life span. Industrial computers also have a much greater capacity for expansion and upgrades, with a higher number of slots and ports than commercial computers.
Industrial computers are sometimes located remotely from a direct power source. Some depend on batteries alone, some use a combination of batteries and solar power, and some access power over Ethernet. They therefore need to use less power than commercial computers without sacrificing performance or functionality. Embedded processors such as Intel’s Atom™ and NXP’s I.MX6 use the latest advancements in low-power technology to minimize their power consumption while reducing heat generation.
Commercial computers have power management functions such as ACPI and OnNow built into the BIOS and OS. These functions cause the OS to sleep or the hard drive to spin down when the computer is inactive, which occurs frequently with commercial computers. However, they tend to interfere with the required operation of industrial computers, which must activate almost instantly from sleep or remain in constant operation.
Commercial computers typically run the latest OS such as Windows 10, Apple’s OSX, Chrome or Android, depending on the type of machine. These OS are designed to run commercially available applications that are in turn periodically updated.
Industrial computers typically run an OS such as Windows 10, Windows IoT, Windows IoT Core or Linux, and sometimes a custom OS. They often run custom software and their OSs must maintain compatibility to support those applications.
I/O Expansion Capabilities
The latest commercial computers use I/O options such as Fire wire (IEEE 1394) and USB. However, industrial computers usually rely on traditional serial and parallel communication methods, especially if they have or must support a touch screen interface.
Most commercial computers no longer have serial ports or PCI slots, but these features are still common on industrial computers that have to support multiple expansion needs. The vast majority of industrial computers also have serial ports (RS232, RS422 and RS485), which they need to interface with legacy equipment. In addition, they may need to support newer I/O expansion slots such as HD DisplayPort, multiple displays, Ethernet, USB Type 2.0 and 3.0, general purpose input/output (GPIO), PCI Express and M.2.
WINSYSTEMS, Inc. is a leading provider of industrial embedded computer systems. Our product lines include commercial off the shelf (COTS), modified COTS and custom-designed solutions. We also seek to be a technology partner with original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and automation providers that need our embedded systems to make their applications work. Connect with one of our application engineers today to learn more about how we can help you embed success in your applications.