Industrial systems have come a long way since the days of PLCs using analogue 4-20mA control loops. Whether it be communications or internal architecture, the evolution of industrial electronics has been one towards increased digitisation and integration.
Along with the need for plant-floor-to-boardroom visibility, the shift towards industrial computer systems has been driven by the need for improved performance and speed, while still delivering rugged reliability and long-term availability.
Industrial processors, as the critical “brains” of these systems, are changing too – and not just to keep up with new application demands. In some cases, new processor technologies are driving new ways of working, leading to reduced downtime, increased safety, and quick returns on investment.
Electronics News talked to Cameron Swen, Strategic Marketing Manager for Industrial Controls and Automation, AMD Embedded Solutions Division, and Christian Eder, Director of Marketing at congatec, for their insiders’ view on the latest industrial processing technology.
Long term availability
Given the potential cost of downtime, industrial clients are understandably risk-averse. Unlike the IT and consumer spaces, where fast-paced technological upgrades are a fact of life, the industrial sector values mature technologies proven to deliver reliable operation.
As such, industrial systems are characterised by longevity – unlike consumer desktop computers which tend to be upgraded or replaced every 4.5 years, typical lifecycles for industrial computers start from a minimum of five years, and can range up to 15 years or more.
Because industrial and embedded computers tend to be highly customised for their applications, the ability to quickly replace faulty processors with the exact model is paramount. Consumer grade processors, which tend to see rapid obsolescence and ever-shifting socket form factors, are unsuited for such uses.
Processor manufacturers like AMD cater for these longer lifecycles, by guaranteeing supplies of its embedded and industrial lines of processors for at least seven years. Others, like Freescale, guarantee their system on chips (SoCs) to be available for a minimum of 10 years, ensuring ongoing support and parts for industrial customers.
Minimising or avoiding downtime on a day-to-day basis is another key focus for industrial customers. It is not surprising that in any discussion of industrial computers, the question of ruggedness is raised.
According to AMD’s Cameron Swen, the features of industrial processors contribute to and enable the reliability and ruggedness of systems built around them.
“Ensuring maximum reliability in mission critical systems is a very complex topic that encompasses the design and manufacturing processes at the silicon, board and system levels and starts with the size, weight and power (SWaP) fundamentals,” Swen explained.
Talking to system integrators and processor manufacturers, it quickly becomes clear that factors like shock and vibration resistance, power consumption and thermal management are interconnected pieces of the same puzzle.
Power consumption affects thermal output, which in turn determines the size and types of required cooling options, which has direct consequences for the ruggedness and ingress protection capabilities of the entire system.
Many industrial computers operate in vehicle or factory environments where they are subject to shock and/or constant vibration. The need for ingress protection also limits the airflow available for cooling.
As such, the conventional approach to cooling with big and heavy heatsinks and fans is out of the question – the constant movement would make short work of such systems.
To combat vibration and shock, processor manufacturers like AMD provide solutions in small footprint form factors like ball grid array (BGA) surface-mount packaging, which are soldered directly on the board for extra security.
To minimise the size of the cooling solutions required in the end solution, chip makers combine two general approaches: extend the operational temperature range of their processors; and reduce power consumption while boosting efficiency in order to reduce the heat generated by the processor.
“Managing thermals is essential for these types of systems and delivering full featured processing solutions that are able to meet the performance requirements while still operating with modest power consumption ensures that the processor doesn’t impose thermal stress on the rest of the system,” Swen said.
Like other processor manufacturers, AMD is developing its low power Embedded APUs, SoCs and discrete graphics processors to deliver maximum performance per watt, without radiating a lot of power.
Of course, power consumption can be a pressing priority in some applications, such as equipment used in remote areas, or equipment which needs to be truly wireless – the reduced energy requirements of these processors increases their suitability for such uses.