Modular Systems for Industrial Automation

Modular Platform Approach Enables Predictive Productivity

As manufacturing becomes more automated and distributed, it also needs to be configurable and reliable so that manufacturers can react quickly to changing conditions yet protect their investments in systems that are increasingly connected to the IoT.


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Factories need to become smarter and more connected in order to increase productivity. In conjunction, more manufacturing facilities are implementing Industry 4.0 (‘Smart Automation’) enabling more efficient production processes that allow changes to be made quickly and more easily while keeping downtime to a minimum.  Industry 4.0 is the industrial Internet of Things (IoT) and plays an important role in defining how individual devices need to be more intelligent, manageable and connected to support predictable productivity.  But what is really needed from IoT-ready industrial computer platforms to meet all these and future requirements?  What features and capabilities are essential from embedded hardware solutions to ensure that industrial automation developers have the solid foundation required for the control and connection of machines and processes?

Implementing Smart Automation

Interoperability is seen as a key challenge for industrial system developers in implementing Industry 4.0.  Not only must they securely connect and communicate with each device, it is also essential that individual devices are able to access data in real time.  Going a step further, Industry 4.0 brings with it the expectation that these same devices may operate autonomously. Embedded computing platforms have advanced to a point of solving many of these issues acting as gateways and making predictive productivity possible by controlling, and connecting machines and sensors. 

Next-generation embedded platforms provide a modular, building block approach that gives developers the flexible resources to easily deploy system upgrades. Platforms with a modular design pave the way for developers to maximize their innovation potential and offer new system benefits by breaking CPU and other related technology obsolescence barriers. Module-based solutions allow the customer to migrate to the latest processor technology by only replacing the module and not redesigning the full system.  They also extend the life of legacy systems.  In addition, building-block platforms such as those based on COM Express offer the ability to easily handle thermal management requirements without the need for mechanical changes by employing a thermal transfer plate so that cooling can be achieved in the same space.

So that developers can take advantage of remote management functionalities, corresponding software resources are very helpful. Developers can streamline software implementation using application program interface (API) middleware. For example, Kontron offers its wide range of systems and boards with the option of adding the company’s Kontron Embedded Application Programming Interface (KEAPI), which standardizes the access and control of hardware resources for embedded applications from its rich and sophisticated library of API functions. This cross-platform resource enables OEMs to simplify the development of applications such as monitoring of processors, control internal temperature or to facilitate access to the I²C bus. Using the Cloud, dependable BIOS updates that employ an additional security layer to protect against unauthorized access are possible with KEAPI. By unifying the way all Kontron embedded platforms are handled independent from form factor or OS significantly reduces development time and costs giving industrial OEMs a more expedient way to meet their system integration objectives (Figure 1). 

Figure 1
The world’s factories are growing smarter and more connected driven by developments in industrial computer platforms, the central components for the control, interaction and connection of machines and processes. IoT-ready industrial computer platforms enable automation system developers to prepare production facilities for Industry 4.0 paving the way for highly efficient and flexible production capabilities.

IoT-Ready Capabilities

Making industrial systems IoT-ready requires the ability to efficiently handle data in a unified approach that turns individual devices into connected, intelligent systems.  To facilitate intelligent industrial applications, devices at the edge (devices distributed in the field close to client machines providing operational technology) need to be connected to the larger network.  Connecting these endpoints into the larger realm of the IoT requires two tiers of technology.  The first is gateways that can connect multiple end points, providing data aggregation and formatting, protocol conversion, security, and other services.  Effective connectivity must be able to support a variety of edge devices. Anticipating these needs, the latest platforms offer multiple connectivity possibilities – from working solely as a gateway, to providing machine control (Figure 2).

Figure 2
The Kontron KBox A-202 Box PC is an industrial gateway solution based on the low power (memory down) concept, making it a virtually maintenance-free design for the industrial environment.

The second tier of technology is infrastructure solutions that bring together data from gateways and enterprise sources. Connectivity enabled products provide needed functions such as provisioning and management, analytics, and linking of IoT data to mobile and enterprise applications. These platforms transform data into actionable information that can be used throughout an organization. 

Ensuring Maintenance-Free Reliability

Predictive productivity can be severely hampered by unscheduled downtime. Many large industrial operations need to manage a considerable number of installed systems distributed across multiple facilities. These distributed installations have a tendency to cause maintenance issues. Very sizeable and, in many cases, nationwide or international networks are the reality today. In these instances, maintenance involves travel that can quickly become very costly. Having a higher level of system dependability also means that service technicians can concentrate on crucial service calls rather than using their valuable time for spares requests. These benefits reinforce why remote management and maintenance-free reliability are becoming mandatory expectations of computing platforms used in the industrial environment.

A primary requirement of maintenance-free systems is that they need to be free of moving parts or rotating components, such as fans or HDD storage that have a tendency to wear out more easily. Moving parts are also vulnerable to shock and vibration, which in harsh industrial environments can increase the risk of failure. Consequently, fanless industrial computer platforms with flash-based mass storage offer the appropriate solution.

Energy-efficiency technology is important characteristics as well.  Components such as the latest processors offer optimal performance-per-watt ratios generating minimal heat to eliminate the need for active fan cooling (Figure 3).

Figure 3
Kontron’s KBox family is based on low- power CPUs and offers high performance delivered in a compact format with up to 4th generation Intel Core processors. Designed for a variety of industrial applications, KBox computing solutions are suitable as a controller platform, its advanced graphics capabilities match needs in HMI – MES applications, and the built-in communication options and environmental specification make it suitable to handle remote monitoring applications.

A continuous power supply makes sure that system settings and the real-time clock do not require resetting resulting in a manual reboot. Battery-free operation is the answer.  Wear-free double layer capacitors, also called gold caps, do not require replacement and can ensure a continuous power supply to the BIOS or the EFI memory and the internal clock system even when the system is switched off and disconnected.

It is said that a system can only be as good as its weakest component so selecting platforms that feature long-life components with a high MTBF is critical.  In addition, all the components and parts of the embedded computing solution such as CPUs and memory modules must be specified to withstand ambient temperatures and temperature fluctuations over the life of the system.

Making Predictive Productivity Possible

The right industrial computing platform can make all the difference in helping factory operators meet productivity goals.  Maintenance-free reliability is a must so the best platforms remove moving parts to feature fanless operation, flash memory and gold caps. High MTBF rates are recommended to ensure industrial automation 24/7 and multi-year lifecycle requirements demonstrated by Kontron’s KBox C-101 Box PC that supports a high MTBF of more than 135,000 hours at an ambient temperature of 30°C.  Industrial-grade and long-term availability are also crucial enabling customers to obtain systems in an identical configuration for years to come. Working with a supplier who has control of the entire process starting with the board design and continuing to the production of the complete platform, furthers the trust in automation system reliability and longevity.

Today’s powerful computing technologies not only make industrial automation systems smarter and more connected, they also help reduce operating costs and minimize production downtime to prevent unnecessary profit loss.  Seeking out maintenance-free industrial computer platforms systems provides a strong foundation for predictive productivity and supports the Industry 4.0 evolution.

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