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A new Era of Industrial PCs Builds on Modularity and Cost Efficiencies

The built-to-order, or BTO, system is a way of combining standard functions in custom configurations based on the PC concept. The ability to assemble off-the-shelf components into systems for dedicated industrial purposes is a big win for cost and time-to-market goals.

BY SUSANNE BORNSCHLEGL, MEN MICRO

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No matter the industry, companies needing highly operational embedded systems are increasingly pressed for time to get designs developed and performing optimally.  While standard products typically provide cost and time-to-market efficiencies, the trade-off is less application-specific functionality and configuration.

However, one computing concept—built-to-order (BTO) systems— actually builds upon standard products. The vision started with the development of modular box PCs that provide the cost economies of standard products and the ability to custom tailor a system to the unique requirements of a given application. 

A Balancing Act

Computer systems are subject to extreme cost pressures, particularly in industrial areas like automation. On the other hand they need to be configurable. They need PCI components and fieldbus options. Ideally, everything has to come off the shelf to optimize the costs both on the manufacturer’s side and on the designer’s side (Figure 1).

Figure 1
Time and cost pressures are rising in industrial computing, while specialized computing requirements continue to grow as well.

The modular BTO concept eases this tension by quickly delivering application specific, ready-to-use computing systems at a much lower price point than many custom-specific designs. In fact, low quantities for fast evaluation are available in as little as two weeks, due to a high procurement of single components and a simplified ordering process for these systems.  Once developed, users only need to install their own application on the box PC.

From the Beginning

The BTO box PC concept from MEN Micro was developed with a clear set of goals aimed at offering a groundbreaking, turnkey solution that gives system designers a flexible, budget-conscious, quickly delivered computing system:

• Time-to-market must be short.

• Configuration must be easy—even with special I/O requirements.

• Any approach must be highly modular to save time and costs.

• The final system must be ready for harsh environments.

Clearly following such a vision has quickly led designers from different markets to a range of products that improve on existing solutions. The typical built-to-order box PC consists of a separate CPU board, the I/O board, a heat sink and additional accessories like PCI Express Mini Cards or storage modules. Additional advantages include the use of scalable processor platforms and a robust design, such as conforming to EN 50155 and the requirements for E-Mark certification (Figure 2).

Figure 2
A scalable CPU board, design flexibility and a robust housing make BTO box PCs an ideal choice for a number of computing applications.

A Solid Base to Start From

A platform even more natural for BTO systems is standard 19” CompactPCI. A growing number of products with a specific basic functionality can cost-effectively provide application-ready systems with very short time-to-market. The backplane for this type of industrial PC is built around a standard 3U CompactPCI PlusIO CPU board, allowing hybrid solutions using an original CompactPCI as well as the updated CompactPCI Serial platform.

An Intel Core i7 processor brings high CPU performance to industrial applications, providing scalable performance levels within the Core i7 family.  The concept also makes the system available long-term: when a CPU is discontinued, a new Intel card with an up-to-date processor can easily be cycled in. 

Flexibility at the Core

One of the complex challenges of the BTO concept was to allow for configuration that could accommodate all kinds of I/O functions, along with the PCI cards very common in industrial applications, without having to change the resulting backplane for different configurations (Figure 3). Multiple I/O and expansion slot options, coupled with the CPU flexibility, allows these industrial PCs to cover a broad range of possible tasks, including RAID, NAS, kiosk or data acquisition functions. Proven, reliable standards, like CompactPCI and CompactPCI Serial, ensure the necessary modularity for design flexibility as well as help reduce a designer’s dependence on a single supplier.

Figure 3
The first in this growing line of modular solutions, the half 19” MH70I offers many BTO configurations, resulting in fast time-to-market.

The concept of using CompactPCI Serial in combination with PCI takes modularity to a new level. And with the added robustness of these systems, the application possibilities are virtually endless. The pool of standard hardware available to build up a specific functionality includes all kinds of I/O for PCI, CompactPCI and CompactPCI Serial such as networking or mass storage, analog and binary I/O or wireless interfaces.

Working with partners such as Hilscher, companies like MEN Micro that are developing these systems can easily incorporate fieldbus interfaces as diverse as CANopen, DeviceNet and Real-Time-Ethernet (EtherCAT, EtherNet/IP, Modbus, POWERLINK, PROFINET, SERCOS, Varan) to PROFIBUS on 3U CompactPCI. The supported components have been selected to guarantee a complete range of options from a reliable source. And finally the best of hardware cannot be called “application-ready” without matching software. This is why the industrial PC always comes with a pre-installed operating system and drivers.

Flexible Systems Through Technology Re-Use

What these CompactPCI-based systems and box PCs have in common is the modular, family-based design. Many design details are completely dedicated to one package concept, but many functions can be re-used and technologies can be shared between device types.

Plug-on modules like PCIe Mini Cards can add wireless or legacy I/O functions and especially fieldbus interfaces. Hilscher’s modular solution for functions from CANopen to real-time Ethernet integrates perfectly into MEN systems, with CompactPCI peripherals and Mini Cards based on the same functional unit. Re-using such units drastically reduces costs.

These are not just application-ready, but true turnkey systems, complemented by a family of routers and switches in both box and 9.5” rack-mount CompactPCI format, similar to the different industrial PCs. The networking products are designed with one common PCB base, yielding a complete range of ready-to-use devices optimized for different markets and performance levels.

If that sounds like a solid base for many tasks, you should never forget how different embedded applications can be. A jack of all trades is a master of none, and this may never have been as true as today, with these specialized embedded computers finding their way into ever new fields of use. Their modular design ensures that these systems are developed to hone in on the critical functionalities needed in specific applications. Engineers need to think out of the box before actually designing it. This is where the true mastery of this modular computing concept becomes a reality. In fact, the BTO concept has recently made inroads into European mass transportation. 

Box PCs Travel to New Regions

While railway is by far the largest segment of public transportation, the market has always had another spoke in its wheel.  Buses have served the public for years, but have not reached the popularity of train travel. 

However, this is changing.  Recognizing the rising expectations of the mass commuter, bus manufacturers are stepping up to incorporate technology into buses for a better end user experience. Internet access will soon be joining cheaper fares as a draw for the modern commuter to seriously consider buses as an effective means of mass transportation. The popularity of traveling by bus will continue to rise as passenger conveniences are added. A major factor enabling buses to implement these types of advanced technology-based systems is the built-to-order box PC concept, because it brings cost-effective modularity and fast time-to-market to a compact platform suitable for buses.

Although considered standard in the computing industry, the footprint of a 19” system may still be too large; its cooling concept may not work in restricted surroundings; the housing may not be robust enough.  Accommodations for these design deviations are also part of the BTO vision. 

A number of standardized components can be assembled to build up all kinds of box PCs, allowing for different CPUs from ARM to AMD and Intel, numerous I/O configuration options and scalable housing sizes. This wide range of standard boxes covers dedicated functional areas to meet cost requirements and fast time-to-market.

An important focus is on in-vehicle PCs complying with EN 50155 for rail and ISO 7637-2 for automotive. One compact box was designed for graphical performance and another, slightly larger box adds a bit more I/O to accommodate wireless communication.

With AMD or, alternatively, Intel performance, this box PC can be combined with displays or storage, while PCI Express Mini Cards, SIM card holders and antenna facilities enable configuration of the exact wireless functionality up to LTE (4G) or WLAN/Wi-Fi. A GNSS interface supporting GPS and GLONASS for positioning complements the possibilities.

Other AMD-based industrial box PCs encompass a version optimized for cost efficiency and one for storage applications, including hot-pluggable HDD/SSD shuttles. Then, there are a number of Intel-based box PCs for even higher performance in storage and communication functions.

The final question is whether even heavily configurable devices can keep up with the off-the-shelf idea. Even with a radicalized modularity concept, can you just “click and place” your components online and put the system into a shopping basket for ordering?

Yes and no, in a way…

A truly optimized solution deserves some degree of complexity. Customers face full racks of devices in all flavors in the embedded supermarket. Could the last modular piece in the puzzle of an application-ready system be an excellent partner who understands your needs?  Your system will still be on your desk and in your project in very short time, but without the hassle of which components really match. That is part of the vision, too.

MEN Micro
Blue Bell, PA.
(215) 542-9576
www.menmicro.com

Hilscher Gesellschaft für Systemautomation
Hattersheim, Germany.
+49 (0)6190 9907-0
www.hilscher.com