The harsh reality of IPC selection

Apr 1, 2021 | Industry 4.0

There are many demanding environments in the industrial sector. Whether it’s the vigorous vibrations of heavy processing machinery or the intense temperatures of smelting applications, these harsh environments place a great pressure on automation controllers and electronics on the factory floor — often resulting in performance becoming secondary to ruggedisation in industrial PC (IPC) specification. Here, David Evanson, corporate vendor relationship manager at industrial automation expert Novotek UK and Ireland, explains how engineers can balance performance and durability in IPCs.

Industrial environments are far from the conventionally ideal location to find sensitive electronics like sensors, embedded devices and IPCs. Yet as the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) becomes more pervasive and more industries adopt greater levels of system connectivity, electronic devices are increasingly finding their way to the field level — often without the protection of a cabinet.

The trend has grown over the past decade and is evidently here to stay — the IIoT is expected to generate $1.2–3.7tn USD by 2025, and the potential for improved productivity and efficiency appeals to most business owners.

Electronic devices and IPCs used at the field-level have long been ruggedised to endure the tough environmental conditions. Ruggedisation of these systems includes considerations such as sturdier computing components and concealed connectors so that internal components withstand vibration and shock, or completely sealed enclosures designed to protect devices against knocks, humidity and ingress.

However, engineers will be familiar with some of the challenges presented by newer technologies. With conventional ruggedised systems, there has been a trade off between durability and performance capabilities. For example, lower processing power would typically be packed into a fully enclosed industrial or panel PC, because the sealed enclosure reduced heat dissipation capacity and higher processing power leads to elevated temperatures.

Historically, this hasn’t posed many limitations on operations; the conventional uses of IPCs have required relatively low processing capabilities. But as the IIoT grows, the expectations of devices and IPCs have grown significantly. IPCs and edge systems now often need to pre-process data close to the source, as well as simultaneously manage local processes while communicating data to a series of connected devices, either locally or via the cloud. This requires substantially more processing capacity than would have been necessary even ten years ago.

This leads most engineers to accept as standard that selecting an IPC for harsh environments is a matter of compromising on processing capabilities to ensure the device withstands the environment conditions, without needing impractically frequent maintenance. This means settling for an IPC that meets the minimum performance requirements and is sufficiently ruggedised. Of course, this enforces a hard technological limit on what the device can achieve.

Fortunately for engineers, IPC manufacturers are catching up with the evolving requirements of industrial control and connectivity. As such, it’s no longer the case that ruggedisation comes at the cost of performance.

From Novotek’s experience advising industrial businesses on industrial automation hardware, one of the best options for high processing potential in harsh environments is Emerson’s RXi2-BP IPC. The unit is capable of withstanding shock, vibrations and an extended temperature range of -40 to 70 degrees Celsius without compromising on computing performance. This is all within a highly compact footprint, ideal for field-level placement.

In terms of performance, the RXi2-BP features an AMD Ryzen V1000 quad core processor, with a clock speed of either 2.0 or 2.4 GHz, and up to 16GB of RAM. This allows the unit to efficiently and effectively handle high volumes of data, as well as run industrial applications such as data analysis or Historian software, directly on a machine.

As we’ve seen from our recent Tough Enough competition, many engineers have IPCs set up to operate effectively in harsh environments. Although there are some elaborate and impressively complex means of circumventing the technological or environmental limitations of IPCs, there are simple and highly effective solutions also available. As more IPCs leave cabinets and are required on the factory floor, engineers no longer need to choose performance or durability — the right IPC can offer both, even in the harshest operating conditions.