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Max Ingram from Siemens Industry Automation discusses the developments in industrial PCs (IPCs) and the market drivers that affect manufacturers looking to satisfy diverse customer demands.

The use of PC technology in industrial and manufacturing applications is nothing new; ever since the early days of PC technology about 20 years ago, the take-up of IPCs in various guises and application areas has been significant.

However, early users of IPCs did not enjoy the benefits that today’s users can expect, with frequent failures and operating system seizures almost a way of life.

The temptation to embrace certain early examples of hardware was great as they were sold largely on price and the low cost was achieved by compromising on quality and support.

The marketplace quickly learnt that the cost of downtime through product failure, possibly on the other side of the world, far exceeded any benefits of the attractive upfront purchase price.

Today’s wiser IPC users recognise that the lifetime cost of ownership is more important than the purchase price.

However, current successful IPC manufacturers have a dilemma to overcome.

On the one hand, products are expected to stay abreast of the rapid rate of technological innovation with ever faster multi-core processors and advances in bulk storage media as examples and on the other hand satisfy a customer base that wants the stability and continuity of supply from its IPC supplier.

To satisfy these demands, there are three essential things the IPC manufacturer must seek to achieve.

First, the product ‘roadmap’ should provide a seamless migration path from old products to new, thereby ensuring that customers can adopt new products with minimum grief.

Second, there should be a period of ‘overlap’ of availability of the outgoing and incoming products so that users can migrate when it suits their own schedules.

Legacy operating systems should continue to be available as standard options for as long as possible.

Siemens, for example, will be offering Windows XP until at least 2013.

Finally, it is important that superseded IPC products continue to be supported by the manufacturer; typically, a further five years of spares availability and repairs is acceptable to even the most demanding IPC users.

The range and complexity of IPC applications continue to grow.

With integrated fieldbus (such as Profibus and Profinet) and multi-channel Ethernet options, the IPC platform is now a key element in MES architecture and the totally integrated automation (TIA) environment.

With quad-core CPU options and high-availability Raided hard drives, today’s IPCs can offer good performance and reliability in the industrial environment.

Different ambient conditions can present varying challenges to the IPC.

Extremes of ambient might be temperature, humidity, shock, vibration and airborne contaminants found in some manufacturing processes – or any combination of these factors.

Panel PCs with stainless-steel bezels address some of the issues faced by the food and pharmaceutical industries.

Certain types of application may make higher demands on certain component parts of a PC, thereby increasing the effects of wear and tear disproportionately.

For example, to overcome such wear and tear in the past, it has been possible to mount hard drives on rubber mounts to minimise the risk of damage through shock and vibration.

Recent developments in solid-state hard-drive technology, however, mean that it is now possible to offer these as an economical alternative to the rotating hard drive, thus eliminating a possible source of system failure.

Similarly, CPU technology advances mean that cooling fans can be eliminated in some products.

This means that, for the first time, it is possible to offer a multi-core IPC rated at up to 55C with no moving parts.

This is an attractive proposition to many IPC users.

A further development to increase IPC availability is the use of onboard intelligent diagnostics.

Typically, this type of system will monitor and report hardware and software faults both locally and remotely.

Remote reporting can be via a local-area network, email or text message.

The system will alert the user, log all events and automatically execute programs.

Faults are rapidly detected and potential system failures avoided.

Such diagnostic systems can also incorporate an hours-run meter for the scheduling of routine maintenance tasks.

Today’s marketplace for IPCs encompasses applications in the marine environment, security, vision and inspection, vehicle-mounted, defence, agriculture, point-of-sale, warehousing and distribution, renewable-energy, airports and public utilities, as well as the more conventional application areas in factory and process automation.

They are even found in biscuit-tin manufacturing.

The advances in IPC technology have spawned the current-generation products, which are powerful and reliable and which perform in the way they address the control, monitoring and communication tasks of today’s complex applications; these developments are set to continue into the future.

Siemens Automation and Drives

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