Using computers in industrial applications can be challenging... here's why.

Author: Anthony Barham

Industrial computers have come a long way since IBM first released their 5531 industrial PC in the early 1980s.
System Integrators and OEMs have a huge variety of form factors, chipsets and components to choose from and with each vendor keen to push their own technology and features, it can be increasingly difficult to ensure that you are choosing the right fit for your application. Furthermore, with the rapid growth of the Industrial Internet of Things and Industry 4.0, the range of options and system architectures has suddenly become all that more complex.

After 25 years building computers for a variety of industrial applications, we've learned a lot about about how to choose, build and support the right system. Below are just a handful of common challenges our customers face when specifying computers for industrial applications - you might be able to relate to some of them.
Engineers: do any of these sound familiar?

Engineers: do any of these sound familiar?

Changing computer specifications means lots of software image updates
The use of commercial grade computers in industry is surprisingly commonplace, in particular where the environment is not deemed harsh enough to warrant ‘industrial grade’ hardware. Users of these computers often don’t consider that industrial computers are not just built for harsher environments, they also have far longer availability and support than their commercial counterparts.

Using a commercial computer means hardware and chipsets will be superseded a lot more frequently, generally every 3 to 6 months rather than every 5 to 7 years when compared to similarly specified industrial computers, and an update to computer hardware inevitably means an update to your OS and software image.

For the end user or factory IT team, recreating an OS and software image for new hardware costs engineering resources that could be spent elsewhere, but for system integrators and OEMs deploying large fleets of systems to many different customers, managing these hardware changes (and moreover which customer has which spec), can become a highly demanding, costly and time consuming process.
SOLUTION: Use industrial grade components with guaranteed (embedded) support lifecycles to keep image updates to a minimum.
Creating a robust technical file is harder than it should be due to missing or incorrect test reports
Using computers and their associated peripherals in industry often means that a robust technical file is required to ensure industry bodies don't cause delays in the acceptance or certification testing process. There have been numerous instances where Impulse have been approached by new customers who have used certain products in their system design, only to find at the eleventh hour that the requisite documentation is either incorrect or missing when requested from the vendor. 

So that you have confidence in your bill of materials, and avoid unecessary costs and delays by having to design in a new component during project deployment, ensure your hardware supplier is willing to provide technical documentation in advance and ahead of purchase, or even help produce your technical file with you.
SOLUTION: Ensure your supplier can provide all necessary documentation in advance of purchase.
It works on paper but in practice it's a whole different ball game
When building industrial computers one of the first steps is to develop an outline Bill Of Materials (BOM) based on the project specifications. In order to match the specification it is often tempting to go through the BOM and 'Google' each line to find a suitable component. Whilst this approach will no doubt allow the system spec. sheet to be completed quickly, often the last thought in the process is how these components will work in terms of compatibility, fit and function.

There are lots of considerations to make when designing an industrial computer platform and, as often the case, as the chassis gets smaller or the amount of peripherals increase, ensuring compatibility of even the simplest ATX motherboard into an ATX chassis can become surprisingly complex.

Using a specialist industrial computer integrator can save considerable time and money by reducing trial and error in the development process. Not only do specialist industrial computing integrators such as Impulse have years of experience building complex industrial computers, they also have excellent support links direct to the hardware vendors which dramatically speeds up system development, offers improved reliability and gives users a single source for technical support.
SOLUTION: Use a specialist industrial computing integrator / distributor with direct links to the hardware vendors.
Deploying multiple systems with complex configurations takes up valuable engineering resource
When using industrial computers with either SCADA or proprietary software, system integrators and OEMs have to make numerous configuration changes to the operating system environment in order to streamline system performance. Whilst this is an essential part of providing a reliable and responsive system for your customers, implementing these settings can take a considerable amount of time and be very process intensive.

At Impulse we recommend our customers develop a ‘golden image’ which contains the application software and operating system along with all the configuration files, drivers and system settings. Before despatch, this image is then flashed onto every system, meaning the only requirement before deployment is the end site specific settings. Implementing your own ‘golden image’ setup can save considerable amounts of engineering time while also embedding a high degree of reliability and repeatability in your build process.
SOLUTION: Invest in your own system imaging setup or ask your hardware supplier to do it for you.
Supporting your systems

Supporting your systems

Industrial systems running Windows suffer from the Windows BSoD
The Blue Screen of Death (BSoD) has undoubtably affected all Windows users at some point, but when this error message appears in industrial computers it can stop critical processes dead in their tracks, costing money, affecting productivity or even causing hazardous operational environments. Surprisingly, we often see the Windows desktop operating systems being used with industrial computers, despite the huge advantages that are afforded by the embedded equivalents such as WES2009, WES7 and Windows 10 IOT.

One of the biggest causes of the BSoD error are hardware driver issues, and with a desktop OS, drivers can be updated relatively frequently. Depending on the operating environment and the time of the update, the computer may become unresponsive due to errors in the update process or incompatibilities in the new driver. By using the embedded enabling features in Windows IOT (formally Windows Embedded) this, and other causes of instability, can be easily avoided.
SOLUTION: Use an embedded OS for critical systems.
Your SSDs fail causing system downtime
When using industrial computers selecting the correct SSD for the application can be critical to the stability of the system. Ungraceful shutdowns, brownouts and blackouts can cause major issues for data retention, recovery and SSD firmware. Wide temperature extremes and vibration can leave commercial SSDs struggling to operate and the high write frequencies in some industrial applications can wear out NAND flash cells very quickly.

Industrial SSD manufacturers use cost effective methods to protect their drives such as using wide temperature components and component potting. Tantalum capacitors are used for power out protection and conformal coating is optional to protect against moisture, dust, thermal shock and persistent temperature extremes.

NAND flash is available in TLC, MLC, optimised MLC and SLC and are built into the SSD alongside optimised controllers to help with wear levelling and flash longevity. Industrial SSDs are also available in a wide variety of form factors from DDOMs to 2.5” and the latest M2 offerings. It is therefore vital that a proper analysis of the application, environment and accessibility of the system is performed before choosing your SSD to avoid uncessary service issues and help to reduce your total cost of ownership (TCO).
SOLUTION: Ensure you choose the right SSD for your application by talking to your supplier ahead of time and build the necessary cost into your system budget.
End of life components can cause major redesign costs
Developing a new industrial computer platform can be extremely costly and time consuming. Having a component be unexpectedly announced as End of Life (EOL) can be hugely inconvenient at best, but for type approved systems it can mean a whole new certification and redesign process.

To ensure your industrial computer has longevity, firstly ensure the chip vendor has a commitment to long term supply. Intel's commitment to the industrial market is their 'IoT solutions platforms' (embedded range) which you can check at Impulse only recommend using Intel chipsets and processors from this range as Intel guarantee availability of these products for extended periods, meaning industrial computer OEMs can also commit to supply their own products respectively. Some platforms are now being extended to 15 years including some of the Bay Trail, Braswell, Rangeley and Skylake processor families.

Choosing a supplier who commits to and understands how to manage a robust and reliable EOL/PCN (Product Change Notification) process is vital. Advance warning will allow you adequate time to check replacement components for compatibility and, if necessary, place Last Time Buy (LTB) orders of phase-out components for stockholding and call off, effectively extending your industrial computer lifecycle for many years beyond its natural lifetime.
SOLUTION: Choose a supplier and hardware vendor who is committed to supporting critical components on extended roadmaps.
The buying process

The buying process

Ensuring you streamline your buying process is essential in creating reliable, repeatable and both technically and commerically robust industrial computer systems. Here are some of the common pitfalls to be aware of and how best to avoid them.
Currency and other variables affect your system build costs
A common reason customers approach Impulse is that system build costs from their previous supplier were unstable due to component shortages, currency fluctuations and supply chain issues. As almost all component and computer board manufacturers are based outside of the UK, unless you agree fixed prices over extended periods these issues can often lead to unexpected increases in your total build costs.

When selecting component suppliers, ask if they forward purchase currency or offer fixed price call-offs, as this allows consistent prices over extended periods. Using a range of common components across multiple system platforms increases buying power keeping system costs down. At Impulse we build thousands of industrial computers every year and we use this to leverage our suppliers in the Far East, passing on the benefit to our customers. Impulse also has many years experience in currency exchange trading, which ultimately helps keep our customers' costs stable and protects their bottom line for the lifetime of their project
SOLUTION: Long-standing supplier relationships and effective currency management are key to keeping costs stable over extended periods. Ensure you discuss this with your supply chain.
Dealing with multiple computer component suppliers is costly and time consuming
Keeping track of pricing, availability, component obsolence and product roadmaps is challenging enough with just one supplier, but amplify this with a full Bill of Materials spread across multiple suppliers and it becomes a full-time process. Most companies now employ a Just in Time (JIT) inventory strategy in order to reduce cost and manage stock more effectively. Reducing the amount of suppliers in this process can also make necessary production forecasting much easier if your chosen supply base offer stock holding and call off facilities, which Impulse offer locally in the UK. 

Working with a specialist industrial computer system integrator like Impulse gives you the opportunity to source all components and hardware from a single source, whilst reducing costs in terms of time, warehouse space and ultimately wasted materials. Furthermore, fixed BOM codes for industrial computer system builds allow for easier and more effective revision control, simplify the ordering process and reducing the adminstration overhead compared to using multiple suppliers and a huge list of individual components.
SOLUTION: SOLUTION: Consider relying on a core set of technology partners to help streamline your supply chain management processes.

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Sep 2021
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