I speak with IT professionals every day, and their hardware problems range from simple configuration questions to complex, application-specific and environmental challenges. I’ve heard a lot of interesting justifications for choosing one PC over another, but there are a few stories that have really stuck with me. One tale in particular, though hopefully an isolated incident, illustrated an instance in which a modular approach might have saved one IT manager a lot of headaches.
By modular I mean panel PCs that are constructed by combining multiple distinct systems: an industrial PC that provides the processing and I/O, and a touchscreen display. Simple, right? The idea is that individual systems, the PC and the display, though physically one unit, can be serviced or replaced individually. It may seem obvious but, until recently, it’s been far from the norm.
Panel PCs: Feeling the Pain
I worked with an IT manager at a food production facility last year who was interested in refreshing the HMI systems in all of his facilities. After listening to his various qualifiers (splash proof touch screen, quick installation in a pre existing cabinet, low processing needs, one com port and either wired or wireless connectivity), my mind flashed through several immediate approaches including a slip in panel, but from the start, an all-in-one solution wasn’t an option that he was open to. In the course of the conversation, he revealed that a disgruntled employee had recently plunged a carving knife through the screen of one of their inventory management systems. He was quick to chuckle at the ridiculousness of the situation, but because they had been using all-in-one panel PCs, the entire unit had to be replaced, rendering the production facility paper-only until a new unit arrived. Harking back to the age-old question, “fax-scanner-printer combo or buy separately?”, he had a ready response, “No way to all-in-one.”
This was unfortunate because a panel PC would have been a perfect hardware fit for his application. Fit or no fit, he remembered the downtime and budget pressures of being stuck replacing the entire system when it was only the screen that had fallen victim of the unfortunate stabbing.
So while he would have prefered the installation convenience of a panel solution, there was nothing on the market at the time that would give him the maintenance flexibility he needed. The only other approach was to purchase his new PCs and displays as separate units, installing the displays where necessary and wiring them to stand-alone PCs–which he did. This option served him well in the end, but the installation was problematic from the start, given existing space constraints.
Of course, not every panel PC in the field is at risk for death by stabbing, but this incident highlights why this idea of modularity in panel PC design could prove useful for manufacturers and integrators, as well as end users. Had the IT manager held a few modular displays in stock, he could have easily swapped out the damaged screen and been back up and running in minutes (disgruntled employee notwithstanding) without the need to replace the entire system.
Leading Us On
Another typical caveat to using panel PCs? Lead times are often so long that only the US congress would approve. Manufacturers have promised me a 6-week lead time only to have that extend to 12 weeks or beyond. That’s a tough pill to swallow with customer satisfaction at the forefront of everything we do. I’m fond of repeating, “Tell them what you are going to do, and then follow through.” A Latin American colleague recently felt the pressures of months long lead time, read: six months. Ouch.
Imagine you’re an integrator whose customers are chomping at the bit to get production up and running and you can’t get reliable lead times. How are you supposed to set realistic deadline expectations? So due to protracted lead times, my colleagues and I at OnLogic have been reluctant to recommend panel PCs even when they represent an ideal hardware fit.
The Answer to Our Panel Prayers
Familiarity with one or both of these situations has understandably left some panel users a bit sour, and progress being progress we’ve been anticipating someone capable of devising a delta.
That someone is Brandon Chien, founder of Cincoze and chief architect for their line of industrial computers. He and Jerry Laio (head engineer, co-founder and collaborator) have designed (from the PCB up) a line of touch screen panels with the option of attaching either a PC or stand-alone monitor module using a patented connection interface.
Cool new PCs aside, it’s nice to finally have a solution to recommend to clients without having to coach them through processing the all-in-one or not dilemma. Now I can confidently say, “Well, why not both a panel PC and a relatively low replacement cost.” There’s a refreshing ease to the lead time discussion, because if the systems aren’t currently being stocked here in the US, presumably by OnLogic, Brandon and his crew in Taipei have a warehouse full of panels, ready for factory floors.
There’s freedom in having choice, and now our clients are finally free to choose.