The industrial PC (IPC) is a well-developed device, but it continues to improve. The big suppliers in the market today make great products and have all the angles covered, so don't go looking for the cheap IPCs to save only a few bucks. Stick with the well-established players in the industrial PC market and enjoy the excellent range of products they offer.
The IPC is more than just a computer in a sealed box that can handle high temperatures. And, while similar to a PLC, there are many differences, along with hardware flexibility and connectivity.
The top IPC manufactures are the go-to vendors due to their scalable range of hardware suitable for simple to complex applications. They also offer consistent software platforms and the devices are not necessarily manufactured by the cheapest supplier due to quality requirements. Some of these top suppliers even build their own motherboards and have close relationships with PC-based IT companies such as Intel and Microsoft.
What makes it an IPC?
Turning a PC into an IPC is more than putting a tightly sealed box around it to keep it safe in an industrial environment. Making a true IPC involves minimizing the internal components that are likely to fail over time due to dust, vibration, temperature variation and mechanical wear. This often includes improved or eliminated internal wiring using hard contact. Careful routing of cables also reduces chances for shorts or cable damage.
The main component that regularly causes dust and mechanical wear failures in a PC is the fan, so some designs rearrange internal components on the IPC motherboard for connection to a high-efficiency heat sink. This is an important design consideration for an often required wide operating temperature range, perhaps -20 to 60 °C. A ruggedized housing and shock-handling capabilities also define an IPC.
Today, IPCs should not skimp on the processor power. Incorporating modern Intel processors and other hardware assures long-term availability of five to 10 years of more. Multi-core capabilities in the processors should be expected, although not required, to be real-time capable. However, multi-touch capability for connecting to modern HMI solutions should be strongly considered to future-proof the design. Media storage options such as hard drives, solid-state drives, MicroSD and Compact Flash must be specified on the needs of the application. Bigger isn't better as the data can just go up to the cloud in the typical applications the IPC enables.
IPCs and PLCs often compete for the same controller job, but there are differences. Some IPC suppliers work to combine the benefits. With a system that runs Windows, the IPC vendor can take advantage of the enterprise software integration, multimedia capabilities and user familiarity, as well as the hyper-threading capabilities of the PC to maximize the performance of multi-core systems.
The PLC controller side can then run on a dedicated core and is able to operate as a real-time, deterministic processor for high-speed logic and machine program tasks. Look for this feature in an IPC as it is often not possible in a standard PC and is certainly desirable in a high-performance IPC machine-control application.
A variety of IPC physical formats are available including cabinet mounting, DIN-rail mounting and pole/arm mounting. The IPC spans the range from PLC-like to PC brick to flat-panel PC with integrated display. The IPC’s physical configuration is often application-driven, and so is the internal configuration.
Not only do IPCs often include IEC 61850-3 compliance, fanless design, isolated component object model (COM) and LAN ports and available power redundancy, but they offer well-established internal platforms such as peripheral component interconnect (PCI) cards so a user can add many different interface cards that are specific to the industrial market or on the consumer market to customize the hardware to fit any need that may arise. In IPC applications, interface capabilities are required to communicate over a variety of serial and Ethernet communication protocols to hundreds of available peripheral devices.
IPC-based control platforms include comprehensive I/O modules, communication ports, and control software. These IPCs are designed to merge operations technology (OT) and information technology (IT) to take advantage of the Internet of Things (IoT) and improve smart industry.
To do this, the IPC excels standard connectivity requirements to a wide range of devices. This starts with USB (up to 3.0), digital visual interface (DVI), video graphics array (VGA) and fiberoptic, and it extends to Ethernet, EtherNet/IP and other industrial Ethernet protocols in addition to legacy fieldbus connectivity.
The connectivity must go beyond the box. The IPCs need to be more capable than standard PCs because they talk to more than a mouse, keyboard and printer, so having many hardware variations can make or break a project for an end user.
Get the IPC out of the box; mount it; and a host of functions such as real-time Ethernet protocol and programming by IEC 61131-3 gets you communicating, monitoring, controlling and connecting to the cloud. Add an HMI runtime and visualizing via local display or remotely connecting has you feeding, monitoring and using the IoT.
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