Harsh, demanding environments often typify many industrial computer applications. Remote sites can offer little or no protection from severe weather conditions or heat. Computers that are not designed to tolerate harsh conditions simply cannot be used in industrial applications. Such is the case with most consumer-grade PCs. Typical industrial standards call for an operating temperature range of 0 to 40 °C—far more rugged than called for in consumer computer applications. Consequently, embedded computers for industrial applications require better thermal design for use in harsh environments.
Wide-temperature embedded computers, an extreme form of industrial computers, generally have an even wider operating temperature range of -40 to 75 °C and can therefore be deployed in truly extreme locations such as desert and polar regions. By designing an embedded computer to operate under extreme heat and cold, industrial PC manufacturers improve reliability and reduce the likelihood of product failure in harsh environments over extended time periods.
The low thermal design power (TDP) of the Intel® Atom™ processor family has enabled the creation of fanless flat-panel computers, which are well suited to harsh industrial environments. Figures 1 and 2 show fanless flat-panel PCs from Kontron and Protech Systems respectively.
Fanless flat-panel PCs are available from several panel PC vendors including AAEON, Advantec, Axiomtech, Kontron, MEN Mikro Elektronik GmbH, and Protech Systems. Fanless flat-panel computers, which mount flush to a wall and can be used in console installations or as stand-alone, pedestal mounted PCs. These rugged, fanless panel PCs offer at least three key advantages over their fan-equipped counterparts:
- Fans are relatively unreliable electromechanical devices. When a fan fails, the associated computer cooled by the fan usually fails soon thereafter
- Fans require airflow into and out of the panel PC. Therefore, fan-based panel PCs cannot be sealed against water, dust, and dirt.
- Because they dissipate less power, fanless panel PCs are designed to use less electricity than their fan-cooled counterparts.
In addition to the integrated display, these fanless flat-panel PCs offer a wide variety of interfaces to connect to other system components. Interfaces include one or two wired Ethernet ports, wireless Ethernet, RS-232 ports, USB ports, and VGA ports. Table 1 lists a representative sample of the many flat-panel computers based on Intel®-Atom™ processors that are available from Intel® Embedded Alliance members:
Table 1: Representative Fanless Flat-Panel Computers Employing Intel® Atom™ Processors
All of the industrial panel PCs listed in Table 1 incorporate various members of the growing family of Intel® Atom™ processors—low-power, high-performance Intel® architecture (IA) platforms (processor plus chipset) with a thermal design power specification (TDP) of less than 5W. Although they dissipate very little power, these processors are powerful enough to efficiently run common embedded operating systems.
The Intel® Atom™ processor series constitutes a new generation of low-power IA processors that directly address the high demand for software compatibility in familiar, PC-like application environments with excellent performance while meeting the tight constraints and harsh operating environments associated with industrial applications. Industrial PCs based on Intel® Atom™ processors including fanless flat-panel PCs benefit from open architectures based on PC technologies while accommodating tough industrial requirements that demand small PC form factors.
With a TDP of just 2W (versus 35 watts for a typical laptop PC processor), the Intel® Atom™ processors take the IA platform to new places with tough operating environments. Intel® originally targeted its Atom™ processors for MIDs (mobile Internet devices) and in-vehicle entertainment systems but there are many industrial applications that benefit from using these low-power processors. Fanless panel PCs are one example but there are other types of industrial, fanless controllers that also benefit from the low TDP of this processor family.
What harsh conditions do your designs need to operate in? How well do flat-panel PCs meet these requirements? What could be done to make them even easier to integrate into your industrial system designs?
Note: Advantec and Kontron are Premier members of Intel® Embedded Alliance. AAEON, Axiomtech, and IEI Technology Corp are Associate members of the Alliance. MEN Mikro Elektronik GmbH and Protech Systems are Affiliate members of the Alliance.
Ian Gilvarry, IA-32 Features and Flexibility for Next-Generation Industrial Control, Intel® Technology Journal, Volume 13, Issue 1, 2009, pages 146-159, http://download.intel.com/technology/itj/2009/v13i1/pdf/ITJ-11-Industrial-Automation.pdf
Roving Reporter (Intel Contractor)
Intel® Embedded Alliance