Industrial PCs and tablets: A new intersection of form and function

High performance graphics, advanced embedded processors, and evolving ruggedization requirements are transforming the look, feel, and functionality of industrial PCs.

By Jo Sunga September 22, 2015

Continued advancements in industrial PCs and tablets are driving huge gains in productivity, usability, and diagnostic precision. Legacy cable-tethered, operator knob-and-button controls have evolved into wireless Internet-connected touchscreen devices on a parallel development path with wireless consumer devices from smartphones to tablet PCs, ensuring a familiar look and feel, such as intuitive, gesture-based graphical user interface (GUI) navigability, which can extend across both classes of devices.

This innovation has naturally extended the operational range, performance, and versatility of industrial PC systems, while simultaneously making them robust and more user-friendly for operators of all levels of experience. Some design requirements have remained consistent across system generations-for example, small form factors and low-power consumption always will be important attributes. Some requirements are relatively new, borne of increasingly demanding ruggedization needs, evolving communication standards and protocols, emerging security concerns, and an "app store" ecosystem and economy that’s changing the approach to system customization.

Graphics and form factor

Arguably the most valuable advancement beyond legacy industrial PCs and handheld devices is the arrival of high performance graphics capabilities, including high-definition (HD) image resolution, video playback, and 3D graphics, the latter of which is becoming increasingly popular as a means to achieve 360-degree visualization for high-precision applications.

In years past, at the processing platform level, these graphics capabilities would typically have been driven by variou combinations of CPU and graphics processor unit (GPU) chipsets, graphics cards, and input/output (I/O) controllers, which could add significant bulk to a system. With the design advancement of system on chip (SOC) embedded processors, these processing platform complexities and system size penalties have been reduced significantly. The SOC processor architecture integrates a low-power CPU, discrete-class GPU, and I/O controller hub on one die, providing an integrated processing platform that conserves system space while reducing board layers and power needs.

This single-chip SOC architecture is naturally advantageous for applications with demanding 3D graphics and video rendering requirements. With the SOC, the onboard CPU and GPU can share system memory resources, making it easier to shift workloads between the CPU and GPU, allocating the best-suited compute elements on the fly for high-speed multimedia processing.

In turn, this helps enable greater processing power with slimmer profile systems that are easier to place, use, and conserve valuable real estate, complemented by sleek handheld tablets, which provide greater ease of mobility in the field. 

Preserving power

Energy efficiency is an important attribute for any computing device, but the energy efficiency requirements for battery-powered portable devices are considerably more exacting than wall-plugged, fixed installation systems. This is particularly true for industrial tablets equipped for compute-intensive graphics processing.

The emergence of low-power, high-performance SOC processors-operating at 15 W or less-has helped to lower power consumption for industrial tablets, improving performance-per-watt metrics. This in turn permits the use of smaller batteries in the system (further reducing system size), while extending the operational uptime of the device in the field.

Power throttling introduces additional energy efficiency benefits, enabling processor-level power consumption to scale up and down in real time with shifting processing speeds. Triggered automatically based on processor workload thresholds, this throttling capability lowers power consumption during standby intervals and boosts power consumption only when additional performance and responsiveness is needed. This naturally improves energy efficiency and enables an "on demand performance" profile.

The ability to scale power and performance is especially valuable for industrial PCs and tablets used in environments with high ambient temperatures-an increasingly common use case, given the accelerating proliferation of systems networked across manufacturing factory floors and similarly harsh settings. Industrial PCs and tablets built on SOC processing platforms can utilize a configurable thermal design profile (TDP) capability, via which an SOC’s 15 W thermal budget can be "dialed down" to 10 W, for example, so as to stay within the appropriate power and thermal thresholds associated with high temperature operating environments. 

Cooling and ruggedization

Low-power consumption and low-heat dissipation are critical factors for system cooling and can preclude the need for fan cooling within industrial PCs and tablets. Eliminating the mechanical fan from a system opens up a host of benefits, including reducing overall system size considerably, helping to ensure higher reliability and quieter operation through a reduction of moving parts, and minimizing susceptibility to shock and vibration. These benefits are analogous to the benefits that solid-state drives (SSDs) provide compared to mechanical hard disk drives (HDDs).

Fanless industrial PCs and tablets also can be packaged in sealed, ventless enclosures that can help prevent the ingress of airborne particulates and debris into the system, providing an opportunity for greater ruggedness in harsh environmental conditions. System memory corruptions caused by shock, vibration, and/or extreme heat can be mitigated with processor-level error correction code (ECC), which provides the ability to detect and correct bit errors.

These processor-driven power, cooling, and ruggedization considerations should be addressed at the outset of industrial PC and tablet procurement processes with an eye on product line scalability from low-end to high-end performance needs, supporting a broad range of environmental temperatures. A processor platform with pin-to-pin compatibility from low-end to high-end variants can eliminate the hardware design and software configuration complexities that arise when disparate processing platforms are employed across a product portfolio. The processors themselves should be supported and available from the manufacturer for a long period of time-up to 10 years, ideally-to help extend product line longevity.

Looking ahead

Many of the aforementioned design challenges and considerations have persisted through multiple generations of industrial PC systems, intensifying more recently with the advent of high-performance graphics capabilities that sway the balance of processing speeds and power efficiency. New design challenges and opportunities continue to arise, however, driven primarily by interface connectivity, security, and wireless ecosystem trends.

Customers want their industrial PC systems to be adaptable to new technologies and emerging communication protocols, reminding us that there’s no such thing as a "one size fits all" industrial PC or tablet. It’s always advantageous, therefore, for these systems to accommodate the widest possible variety of connectivity standards, spanning Peripheral Component Interconnect Express (PCIe), USB, Bluetooth, 3G, 4G, etc. Flexible PCIe configuration support is particularly valuable, as it enables the use of additional industrial communication protocols and add-ons. Embedded processors that support 1×4- and 4×1-PCIe bus configurations are favorable for use in industrial PC systems.

Ubiquitous wireless connectivity across industrial PC networks naturally introduces heightened security risks ranging from intellectual property theft, tampering, viruses, and other unauthorized data breaches. Industrial PCs and tablets using the Trusted Platform Module (TPM) [part of ISO/IEC 11889] are well suited to guard against these threats, enabling secure access authentication and data encryption among other essential protections. A secure processor built into a SOC helps to bolster security measures, offering native TPM support and providing hardware accelerated crypto capabilities and secure boot functionality to help ensure hardware and software integrity. 

OS revolution

Perhaps the most significant new trend in the industrial panel PC and tablet domain is the growing interest in the Android operating system (part of Google). Today the industry is in the concept phase of this evolution, but the potential associated benefits warrant further exploration and discussion.

While Microsoft Windows remains the dominant operating system (OS) for current-generation industrial PCs, Android presents an opportunity to lower design and development costs and facilitate an app store approach to industrial PC software customization and functional specialization. By using a mainstream mobile OS, albeit a variant that’s tuned and fortified for commercial industrial applications, system integrators could simply recommend and/or select the apps deemed best suited to their customers’ targeted industrial applications, deferring the final customization element to the customer.

Hardware-level customization would often still be required under this new model, particularly for industrial PCs and tablets with specialized instrumentation. But with Android-enabled software flexibility, there may well be a time when upgrading industrial PCs and tablets with new software tools and capabilities will be as easy as downloading an app to phones.

Transformative technology

High-performance graphics capabilities, driven by a new generation of low-power SOC embedded processors, are enabling industrial PC and tablet designers to achieve ambitious system goals centric to form factor, energy efficiency, and ruggedization, particularly for devices designed for use in high-temperature operating environments. Looking ahead toward a future of hyperconnected industrial systems, innovations in system connectivity, security, and web-enabled software customization will further transform the industrial PC and tablet technology landscape.

– Jo Sunga is director of engineering for Advantech’s embedded computing division North America located in Irvine, Calif. Edited by Joy Chang, digital project manager, CFE Media,

Key Concepts

  • Industrial PCs and tablets are driving huge gains in productivity, usability, and diagnostic precision.
  • One of the most valuable advancement is the high performance graphics capabilities.
  • High-performance graphics capabilities enable industrial PC and tablet designers to achieve system goals.

Consider this

What technology advancements do your industrial PCs and tablets have? 

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