Today’s computing environments run the gamut from the cleanest hospital to the dirtiest coal mine. Computing has moved well beyond the climate-controlled office buildings and server rooms of years past, and into the field (or wood shop, or steel mill, or taxi cab). These new challenging environments put hardware at risk for damage from dust, debris, moisture, temperature, shock and vibration. At a minimum, environmental factors will have a tangible impact your choice of case, motherboard, power supply and storage. Fail to consider the environment and you’ll discover that, in many instances, standard tower computers aren’t equipped to handle inhospitable surroundings.
In Part 2 of our continuing series on the vital questions to ask when selecting an industrial PC, we’ll focus on the various environmental concerns that you’ll want to consider in order to avoid system failure, costly downtime and unnecessary expenditures due to damaged hardware.
The Ultimate Guide to Choosing an Industrial Computer Part 1: Performance Part 2: Environment Part 3: Connectivity (coming soon) Part 4: Storage (coming soon) Part 5: Other Considerations (coming soon)
Will your system operate in a dirty or dusty environment?
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Let’s start with the obvious: dust and airborne debris are computer killers. If you’re reading this on a traditional desktop tower PC, or even a laptop, take a quick look at its airflow vents. Pretty filthy, right? Now think about the amount of additional contaminant in the air of a manufacturing facility. Many computer systems rely on vents and fans to circulate air in order to cool internal hardware components, but as air travels into the case it brings in dust, dirt, and even airborne oil and grease particulate as well. Even in relatively clean facilities,over time this debris builds up, covering internal components, causing systems to overheat or the components themselves to short circuit. A well-designed, passively cooled chassis without vents or fans, helps keep out damaging dust and other airborne particulate while maintaining the system at a safe operating temperature.
Takeaway: A fanless and ventless enclosure can help prevent damage from dust while still providing the integral cooling required for optimal operation. These specially-designed chassis use passive cooling technology to maintain safe operating temperatures while preventing the costly ramifications of exposure to dust and dirt.
Will the computer be subjected to shock and/or vibration?
Today’s compact computer systems are frequently being employed in mobile, transportation and other vibration-prone environments where they’re subject to the daily wear and tear of unpredictably kinetic installations. Moving parts don’t generally react well to vibration and impact forces. The two most common points of failure in a vibration or shock-prone environment are traditional platter-based hard drives, and the lowly fan. By removing these parts, through the use of solid state storage and a passively cooled chassis, you immediately increase system durability and longevity.
Takeaway: A solid state system will help minimize the risk of damage or data corruption in vibration-prone applications, be it cars, trucks, boats, planes or in any industrial environment subject to shock or impact. By combining a fanless chassis with solid state storage it’s possible to create a reliable PC with no moving parts.
Will your industrial pc be subject to extreme temperatures?
Extreme temperatures, both high and low, can be devastating for hardware components. High temperatures can result in overheating while low and variable temperatures can lead to dangerous moisture buildup within the system. When choosing your hardware be sure to pay close attention to the temperatures ratings. It’s important to remember that not all “rugged” systems are created equal. For example, a tough looking industrial computer might only be rated to operate in 0°C~40°C and would likely struggle to survive in an automotive environment. A truly rugged computer on the other hand might carry a temperature rating of -25°C~70°C and be much better equipped to stand up to the rigors of mobile installations.
Takeaway: Most standard computer systems aren’t designed for use in extreme temperatures. Be sure to carefully scrutinize the operating temperature ratings of any perspective hardware and look for a wide temp system. It’s important to realize that all “wide temperature” systems aren’t created equal. A difference of 5 degrees in the operating temperature ratings can have a huge impact on system performance and reliability.
Are you dealing with space constraints ?
Where your computers will be located in your facility is just as important as the environment that will surround them. Is there limited room on your desks, in your assembly area, inside your enclosures or within the structure of your embedded device? Do you have proper airflow around the system in order to adequately cool it? The sheer size of your hardware solution is something you’ll want to pay careful attention to. In most embedded applications a traditional tower PC simply isn’t practical, making small form factor PCs based on Mini-ITX and NUC motherboards the prefered choice for the vast majority of industrial projects. However, when utilizing compact, fanless PCs the amount of space around the system will dictate how effectively it’s cooled, so the smaller the overall hardware footprint the better.
Takeaway: Space constraints come in many forms but they can be a headache if you haven’t thought ahead about how much room you’ll need for your chosen hardware solution. A small form factor industrial PC packs all the performance and capabilities of a traditional tower in as little as a twentieth of the overall volume. Mini-ITX and NUC-based systems allow you to install your hardware anywhere but require adequate airflow to ensure proper cooling.
Are there special mounting considerations?
Not every computer lives on a desk, far from it in fact. Today’s computer systems can truly go anywhere, and have to be mountable in virtually any position. When choosing your industrial PC, be sure to consider how you intend to mount it. Options like VESA, rail, rack and wall mounting will enable you to install the system where and how you want, but understanding your options will help you identify the mounting system that’s most applicable for your application. When space is at a premium, monitor-mounted PCs are a convenient option, while rackmounted systems are easy to integrate into an existing IT infrastructure and are ideal for headless (monitor-free) operation.
Takeaway: Today’s advanced industrial computers are designed to live where you need them. Modern small form factor PCs can mount under a desk, behind a monitor or deep within the framework of a larger embedded system. Be sure to fully understand the various mounting options of any system you’re considering.
What are your power needs?
While physical environment will have the most notable impact on the decision making process, the power environment where the system will be used is just as important to consider. What are the power requirements of your project? Does your system or geography dictate a 110V or 220V system? DC or AC power? Are power interruptions a possibility or concern? Fluctuating power, surges and blackouts can wreak havoc with your hardware infrastructure and any attached equipment so it may be necessary to consider an Uninterrupted Power Supply (UPS). Would you rather employ an external UPS or an internally-mounted alternative?
Takeaway: There’s a lot to think about when it comes to your project’s power needs, so be sure to have a complete understanding of your power environment and take the requisite steps to prevent data loss, downtime and system damage. Speaking to a hardware specialist about your specific power requirements can help you gain a better understanding of your various options.
Here at OnLogic, our computers are engineered from the ground up to thrive in the type of environments that would destroy standard tower computers. If you’re struggling with a challenging environment, or have questions about how to best prevent damage from environmental factors, contact a Hardware Solutions Specialist today!
Darek is the Communications Manager at OnLogic. His passion for both journalism and technology has led him from the newsrooms of local papers to the manufacturing floor of IBM. His background in news gathering has him always on the lookout for the latest in emerging tech and the best ways to share that information with readers. In addition to his affinity for words, Darek is a music lover, juggler and huge fan of terrible jokes.