Benefits and characteristics of panel PCs for manufacturers

Panel PCs are often used to run HMI and SCADA software and are a key aspect of many manufacturing industries.

By Inductive Automation November 15, 2023
Courtesy: Inductive Automation

Panel PC insights

  • Panel PCs are specialized, ruggedized computers designed for industrial environments, offering features like touchscreen displays and fanless heatsink technology for reliable, long-term use.
  • They provide benefits like space efficiency, reduced wiring, and various connectivity options, making them crucial tools in optimizing operator efficiency and capturing critical data in industrial settings.

Most people are familiar with PCs, but far fewer understand the difference between a retail PC and a panel PC. Whereas PCs are typically found in offices, panel PCs are specialized units designed to be used on or near machines in industrial environments like plant floors or remote sites. Panel PCs are built specifically to run HMI/SCADA software that allows operators to monitor and control processes. They are used in many industries including food & beverage, oil & gas, automotive, water & wastewater and more.

Panel PCs are integrated all-in-one computers encompassing display and computing systems. The displays take the form of touchscreens that can be both capacitive, or multi-touch and resistive, meaning they can be used while wearing gloves. On the latter point, some panel PCs also give the option between projective capacitive (PCAP) and resistive screens. PCAP screens work by maintaining a standing electrical charge across a sensor that extends through a contact surface — in this case a touchscreen — where changes in the electrical charge can be detected by the proximity of a stylus, a finger, or other capacitive bodies. As far as performance is concerned, PCAP offers much higher viewability, brightness, and reliability. Resistive, in contrast, is more valuable in environments that require operators to wear standard non-specialized gloves, such as remote sites with harsh weather conditions.

Panel PCs are often more ruggedized than their office-based counterparts and therefore more ideal for long-term use in production environments. Operating at a wide range of temperatures, panel PCs are also measured for IP (Ingress Protection), meaning the enclosure’s effectiveness at blocking dust, moisture, and liquids. Panel PCs have multi-screen capabilities in both portrait and landscape, allowing them to adapt to a variety of industry, plant, and field settings. Many panel PCs also include integrated camera, microphone, and proximity sensor options to consolidate the accessories you might need to purchase, all while ensuring compatibility.

For similar reasons, panel PCs regulate temperature differently than commercial or retail PCs. Office PCs typically use fans to cool down their internal systems. However, fans, as well as any other internal moving parts, are not ideal for industrial environments where dust, wide temperature fluctuations, shocks, and random vibrations are common. To stay cool in these situations, panel PCs utilize fanless heatsink technology. A heatsink is a passive heat exchanger that dissipates heat to regulate overall panel PC temperature.

Panel PCs are built specifically to run HMI/SCADA software that allows operators to monitor and control processes.

Panel PCs are built specifically to run HMI/SCADA software that allows operators to monitor and control processes. Courtesy: Inductive Automation

By now, most people associate touchscreens with battery-powered mobile devices like phones and tablets. While you may not be able to fit it in your pocket like a phone, a panel PC runs on hardwired power to avoid downtime while charging. Panel PCs also offer greater mounting and placement flexibility over commercial PCs because they can be mounted where they’re needed without running wiring to a separate PC.

Space is valuable on the plant floor. Panel PCs are designed to be compact while delivering convenient and easy control. By utilizing a touchscreen instead of a keyboard and mouse, panel PCs eliminate excess wires, the need for clunky tables or rigging, and reduce the overall size of the system.

Panel PCs offer several connectivity options including local area networks (LAN), input/output (I/O), CAN and cellular, in addition to Wi-Fi. To stay apace with many organizations’ digital transformation and Industry 4.0 initiatives, most modern panel PCs include industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) functionality.

Panel PCs are designed with an emphasis on reliability, high performance, and an overall reduction of system malfunction, and are therefore most often considered a long-term investment, saving money on maintenance and software updates, especially if paired with a software platform. While compatibility testing is often still required for panel PCs, it is often performed by the manufacturer in advance.

Operators use panel PCs to interact with HMI/SCADA systems, but the amount of control they have over the processes they are monitoring is proportional to how well their chosen hardware and software complement each other. Ignition is the perfect choice for rapidly developing high-performance HMIs designed to optimize operator efficiency. Installed in minutes on virtually any device, Ignition makes working with HMIs easy, and updating an existing HMI becomes fast and painless.

For a lightweight application designed for remote sites, the combination of a panel PC with Ignition Edge is ideal for capturing, processing, and visualizing critical data at the edge of the network, especially when paired with a low-bandwidth protocol like MQTT.

Inductive Automation is a CFE Media and Technology content partner. Edited by Chris Vavra, web content manager, CFE Media and Technology,

Original content can be found at Inductive Automation.