Computers: Industrial, Commercial, and Hybrid

It's been said (by Mason Cooley) that "our most important decisions are made while thinking about something else." Considering the reasons why engineers purchase the types of computers they do, one might think that Mason Cooley could be a manufacturing engineer of one stripe or another. He isn't; he's an aphorist—a person who thinks up witty, concise things to say about life.

By David Greenfield May 1, 2003
  • Human-machine interface

  • Computers

  • Computer boards

  • Computer peripherals

  • Enclosures

  • Industrial computers

  • Single-board computers

5 Things to Know Before You Buy

Hybrid options



It’s been said (by Mason Cooley) that “our most important decisions are made while thinking about something else.” Considering the reasons why engineers purchase the types of computers they do, one might think that Mason Cooley could be a manufacturing engineer of one stripe or another. He isn’t; he’s an aphorist—a person who thinks up witty, concise things to say about life. And despite that job description, his message happens to fit engineers specifying and buying computers.

In deciding whether to use a commercial, off-the-shelf computer, or a rugged, industrialized computer, or a hybrid model (see “Hybrid Options” sidebar), you must consider external factors impacting the computer as well as its technological capabilities. The most important of these external factors are: 1) the environment in which the computer will be used; 2) the total cost of ownership; and 3) overall company goals.

Factor #1: Use

“Today, people are looking for application-specific computers to put in special environments, to be mounted in special ways, to operate 24/7, and to connect to different networks and display systems,” says Edward Boutilier, president and ceo of Stealth Computers (Woodbridge, ON, Canada). “These are demands that engineers didn’t used to have.”

Engineers’ demands vary greatly depending on the operations environment. In some instances, the control computer will be in a sealed room (or special enclosure) where environmental issues are not a concern. In other cases, the computer may need to be placed near equipment where it has to survive different conditions. As a result, the use of NEMA-rated enclosures to protect from environmental hazards is paramount for industrial computing uses. In addition to NEMA, various standards exist related to the ability to resist or withstand liquids, dust, heat, vibration and other hazards.

For many users, the demanding environment of most manufacturing facilities necessitate use of industrial or ruggedized computers.

“I don’t think commercial brands are really made for this. They just don’t hold up with dirt, vibration, and oils in the air,” says Mike McDermott, electrical engineer at Progressive Stamping Inc. (Ottoville, OH). “We replace commercial monitors on a yearly basis due to environment.”

Bryan Murphy, vp of engineering at Kontron America (San Diego, CA), encourages an examination of positioning and use before buying. “If you want to position a display next to a furnace,” he says, “you may want to reconsider. Displays, by their nature, tend to have more problems with extreme temperatures. For example, if an LCD gets up to 85°C, the screen will go black. And if it gets really cold, nothing will display.”

If your production environment is not that extreme, is it worth paying the extra cost for an industrial computer?

“Although it’s not the case everywhere, factories are, as a whole, getting cleaner and more air-conditioned,” says Ralph Damato, business unit manager, Industrial PC Products, Xycom Automation (Saline, MI). “So buyers are tending to analyze the purchase thinking they can use a commercial PC. But I’ve been to some of these ‘clean’ factories where they’ve installed commercial desktops and you ought to see the filters and the fans on these computers,” Mr. Damato says.

“We tried to use desktop computers before switching to industrial computers,” says John Adams, controls integrator at SPX Air Gage Co. (Livonia, MI). “We’ve found that we spent a lot more money out in the field trying to keep that stuff running.”

Engineers should fully understand the application in which the computer will be used to be certain that the specifications meet the computer’s operating environment. Equally important is a complete understanding of the issues faced if you decide to go with a computer that doesn’t meet all specifications the application might require (see the “Specmanship” sidebar).

“People in general, tend to look at the price and then go down to a price floor because they think it’s less expensive,” says Mr. Damato. “But in reality, since they’re not getting the same feature set, it could wind up being more expensive.”

Factor #2: Cost of ownership

It is widely understood that commercial PCs have two distinct advantages over their industrial counterparts: 1) they are cheaper in price and 2) offer the latest in advanced technology. But how important are these factors in your situation?

Clearfield, Utah-based Lifetime Products, a manufacturer of polyethylene folding tables and chairs and basketball equipment, standardized on Hewlett-Packard computers- predominantly ePCs (desktop computers designed for business use). Despite the industrial environment present through much of Lifetime Products’ facilities, the company has never used industrial PCs, largely because they are considered cost prohibitive and typically have less horsepower.

John Bowden, chief information officer of Lifetime Products, says, “The ePCs are important to us because of their small size and their total cost of ownership is much lower than a regular PC. [Initial cost of an ePC under Lifetime’s arrangement is often less than $500.] Also HP provides us a lifetime warranty for the ePCs, and they just overnight a new one to us if one goes down. In the meantime we just use one of the spares.”

Mr. Bowden claims the ePCs perform well in the manufacturing environment. “We provide shielding—standard enclosures,” he says. “Keyboards and mice will sometimes get harmed, so we have support contracts that allow us to do exchanges as needed.”

The largest factor in Lifetime Product’s decision to go with the commercial option was the fact that it merely extended the company’s existing HP environment. Mr. Bowden recommends focusing on the evaluation of long-term costs through standardization. He also suggests factoring service agreements into these costs.

Lacking a standardization agreement with the provider, the commercial PC buyer is open to the product and technology churn characteristic of that market.

This constant change really affects the motherboards in computers, claims Mr. Boutilier of Stealth Computers. “Most truly industrial-grade computers use a single motherboard computer, and they have a technical support lifecycle that’s much longer than a commercial board.”

Commercial-grade motherboards are known as an active board or an ATX-style motherboard. Industrials are typically single-board computers (SBCs) plugged into a passive backplane (although not all industrial computers use SBCs). This means that an SBC is an all-in-one board, similar to a videocard or any type of plug-in board and that plugs into a bus. The bus has no electronics on it—all the intelligence is on the SBC.

Mr. Boutilier says the reason for preferring the single-board architecture in industrial computers is that if you have a failure, you can unplug the SBC in seconds, versus dismantling a commercial computer to get the desktop-style motherboard out. “A single-board computer typically requires loosening one screw and you pop the whole thing out and pop another one in,” he says.

Also, SBCs have a higher meantime before failure rating and typically run up to 60°C. But of course, the cost is much higher because desktop boards are mass-produced, where industrial motherboards are not.

Factor #3: Company goals

Top-down pressures are pervasive in all businesses. Such pressures have presented major computing issues over the past few years in manufacturing, ranging from confronting Y2K to the ever-growing footprint of enterprise systems.

Craig Resnick, director of research, manufacturing advisory services, ARC Advisory Group (Dedham, MA) believes that pressure on the factory floor to port information up to enterprise systems will only strengthen as more companies move toward a collaborative-manufacturing environment.

But there exists a great deal of pushback against much of the Y2K spending mandated by the IT department. “[IT’s] recommendations are often taken with a grain of salt and a dose of paranoia. Manufacturing thinks these guys screwed up corporate’s ERP system implementation, now are they going to come down and screw up production,” Mr. Resnick says.

You have to look at who wags the tail to see how this will play out [at your company], Mr. Resnick says. “Is it a very operations-driven organization in which manufacturing has a lot of clout and they’re slowly incrementing upward into enterprise space, or is the IT group driving things and getting greater control over what’s employed on the factory floor?”

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5 Things to Know Before You Buy

As with any purchase, the more informed consumer usually gets the better deal in the end. With that in mind, Craig Resnik of ARC offers the following checklist to ensure you purchase the right computer.

Don’t buy anything proprietary. Buy something that is compatible with a multitude of systems.

Make sure the computer can be part of an industrial network.

The computer must be able to perform standard operations, such as data monitoring and control, but also crunch numbers and deal with HMI and historians.

Know the vendor. If the company doesn’t make the computer, be aware of whose computers the company offers.

Who will support the machine? IT will be more comfortable supporting a commercial computer.

Hybrid options

Recently a great deal of hype surrounds the market for computers that don’t fit neatly into the industrial or commercial categories. Some call these computers “light industrial” while others refer to them as “hybrid.” In either case, vendor offerings in this space vary greatly—from commercial systems with a modest amount of ruggedization to systems architected to work as a thin client, leaving only the more expendable parts of the system in harm’s way.

Clear Cube (Austin, TX) fits into the latter example, offering a system comprised of CPU “blades” that reside in a data center connected via standard Cat5 wiring to a C/Port, which provides the CPU connections and functions required at the desktop. A C/Port is about the size of a VHS tape and housed in a NEMA enclosure.

Rick Hoffman, vice president of Product Development, says Clear Cube’s products cost 30% to 40% more than a commercial computer.

A large part of the costs incurred when bringing computers into a manufacturing environment often revolve around NEMA enclosures. “We were speaking with people at GM recently, and they spend about $15,000 on a NEMA enclosure and then stick a $700 PC in it,” Mr. Hoffman says. “A ‘blade’ [CPU] is about $1,500 to $2,000 with all software installed.”

Broadax Systems (City of Industry, CA) offers computers that fit more into the light industrial range of the hybrid genre. Edward Shih, vice president of marketing at Broadax says, “We provide standard ATX [commercial motherboard] systems that can be upgraded using commercial parts, and a passive backplane [common industrial PC architecture] with up to 10 slots for flexible configurations. Our systems can be configured either way, depending on the chassis.”


Just like with “gamesmanship,” specmanship can include claims that might be difficult to substantiate, but can put your team ahead in the heat of competition. In the world of computers, specmanship refers to computers said to meet various specifications when, in fact, they might do so only under ideal circumstances.

“There are quite a few companies that don’t meet the requirements they claim to have,” claims Bryan Murphy, vp of engineering at Kontron (San Diego). He advises to look closely for the footnotes that detail what conditions the listed specifications apply. For example, if you will be using the computer in Colorado, you have to consider the exact (higher) altitude because that affects cooling capabilities of the box.

“Determining what constitutes a baseline standard for an industrial computer is a tough line to draw,” says Ralph Damato, business unit manager, Industrial PC Products, Xycom Automation (Saline, MI). “But factory automation lets these specs become a game in that everyone claims to have the same specs, but nobody’s testing to ensure them.” He says he will not source products without confirming UL approval, even if the sources claim UL and CE [European Union] certification.

The main issues to consider when looking at computers for industrial use are UL, CE, shock and vibration, temperature, and NEMA certifications.


Industrial Grade PCs vs. Office Grade PCs

Features to consider Industrial Grade Office Grade
Can it withstand extended temperature? YES NO
Can it withstand shock & vibration? YES NO
Does it have additional cooling fans? YES, typically between two & six fans NO, typically the only fan is in the power supply
Is it dust proof, or does it have filtering? YES, most offer fan filters or a sealed enclosure NO
Is it splash proof from water, chemicals etc.? YES, usually optional NO
Does it have RFI/EMI shielding capability? YES NO
Does it have built-in power surge protection? YES, optional NO although sometimes plugged into a UPS
What type of chassis construction does it have? Rugged, cold rolled steel, very ridged Flimsy, sometimes plastic, not rugged at all
Does it meet industry classifications? NEMA/IP, MIL etc. None
What type of security does it provide? Locking doors & drive bays None
How much life-cycle technical support will be included? 3-5 +years 6 – 12 months
Does it provide intrinsic safety? (explosive air) YES (optional) NO
Mean time between failure (MTBF) Some manufacturers provide calculated & proven data Not provided by manufacturing
Mean time to repair (MTTR) 5-15 min. for single board PC 1-2 hours plus
Mounting & enclosures Very flexible -panel, rack, pendant arm, mounting Desktop or tower style
Proven reliability in harsh environments YES NO
Does it have fault-tolerant options? YES, redundancy for power supplies and disk drives NO
Is it designed for 24 hour, 7 day operation? YES NO

Source: Control Engineering with information from Stealth Computer Corp.

Where manufacturing computers are going

As with any new purchase, be it for business or personal use, it’s always wise to know where things are heading. There’s nothing like the sting of buyer’s remorse to bond one to the wisdom that comes with the greater awareness of the marketplace.

Bryan Murphy, vp of engineering at Kontron (San Diego, CA), sees two distinct trends taking place with regard to computer usage in manufacturing. “On the lower end, I’m seeing a shift from 16-bit to higher performance,” he says. “This is in line with the network interface cards being available in terms of more embedded capabilities and the availability of Windows CE. And when you talk about Windows CE or Linux, the system has to have at least 32-bits and a memory management unit.

“On the high end, I’m actually seeing a slowdown in change. Not many customers are moving to Pentium 4s. There are two reasons for this: 1) a Pentium 4 requires more than twice the power of a Pentium III, so cooling requirements go up quite a bit. 2) Intel has been giving others the license to make chip sets using the Pentium III. In the Pentium 4 market, they’re starting to restrict that. So there are many more Pentium III chip sets readily available for use in embedded area.”

Craig Resnick, director of research, manufacturing advisory services, ARC (Dedham, MA) sees manufacturing computing moving more towards portable and wireless. “We’re seeing increasing use of everything from tablet PCs, to laptops and PDAs,” he says. “Also some of the operating systems are being embedded into these machines on the factory floor, you’re seeing more Windows CE, especially for embedded HMI and more multi-disciplined type of controls.”

The trend Edward Boutilier, president and ceo of Stealth Computers (Woodbridge, ON, Canada), sees most right now is toward smaller, modular computers that can be bolted in control rooms or on walls or under desks. “Industrial computers used to be large and noisy and they took up a lot of room,” he says. “In the last year, though, we’ve been seeing the desire for inclusion of industrial PCs in control rooms and in control panels, but they don’t want the big bulky industrial PCs of yore.”

Don Anspach, marketing manager for computers and monitors at Rockwell Automation (Milwaukee, WI) concurs. “We’ve definitely seen what I call the shrink of the control volume. Specifically, the package size seems to be very sensitive for the OEM community. The smaller the footprint of their entire control system, the more efficient and more cost effective they can be. We’ve constantly been pushed to become smaller and more space efficient over time-which is a trend we didn’t even see as all that important a couple of years ago. Functionality was far more important then. But we’ve actually seen quite a few people make decisions on form factor.”