Incorporate industrial PCs for better computing power in the plant

By incorporating industrial PCs in a manufacturing setting, several plant risks can be mitigated.

By Kristen Quasey June 14, 2024
Courtesy: Siemens


Learning Objectives

  • Understand the downtime risks of component failure in PCs employed in industrial settings.
  • Learn the differences between bespoke industrial PCs and consumer or “business’” PCs.
  • Know the supply chain risks of competing with consumer demand for high-level processing.


Industrial PC insights

  • As plant-floor technologies expand, leveraging additional computing power is a necessity. Advanced automation controls and machine simulation deliver competitive advantages but require immense processing power and memory not typically available in traditional PC systems.
  • Some companies have implemented mass-produced commercial PC systems for industrial needs that are not designed for industrial environments. Compromise on computing creates unnecessary risks of critical failures and machine downtime.
  • Strategic choices of industrial PC solutions designed for rugged environments with bespoke requirements ensure the longevity industrial applications require.

Headlines across business and manufacturing trade media are suggesting that the revolution in next-generation manufacturing is entirely upon us. To deliver return on investment in this industrial revolution, thought leaders must plan how to expand strategically and, most importantly, handle their data.

Machine vision, artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, automation, industrial internet of things (IoT) sensors and whole-plant simulation create mountains of data that must be processed and captured on the plant floor. This data may feed automation algorithms, maintenance cycles or performance reports. The increase in digitalized information in a plant demands more computing power to log data, interact with machines, allow remote access and deliver direct insight into operations to power decision-making.

Scaling production can be costly and manufacturers have learned to cut expenses aggressively to stay competitive. Upgrading existing lines or replicating them to scale production includes accompanying computing needs in a modern plant.

Some plants have attempted to reduce computing costs by employing business-grade PC components familiar to office environments in industrial settings. Mass-produced business-grade PC systems offer lower upfront prices but substantially more long-term costs. The compromise creates no resilience to harsh environments, short component lifetimes and less intrinsic computing power and extensibility.

Purpose-built industrial PC (IPC) systems mitigate the risk of system failure with redundancy. IPCs are designed to significantly increase the lifetime of components in industrial settings and resist harsh environments such as dust, heat, cold and moisture.

Multiple form factors of industrial PCs, including box PCs for computing close to the machine, rack PCs for complex processes, panel PCs for visualization tasks and mobile devices for remote operations. Courtesy: Siemens

Multiple form factors of industrial PCs, including box PCs for computing close to the machine, rack PCs for complex processes, panel PCs for visualization tasks and mobile devices for remote operations. Courtesy: Siemens

Reduce industrial PC downtime

In industrial settings, production downtime is always a significant concern. A system failure in a modern plant means production can come to a standstill, causing increased costs and delays in order fulfillment, leading to financial losses and damaging customer relationships. When logistics chains failed in 2020, many manufacturers who had relied on just-in-time (JIT) production and seamless operations to marginally increase profits were left massively damaged by halted production, lack of raw materials or critical parts and long-term stoppages. For some, the losses due to an unexpected shift in the business environment were much greater than the accumulated value of the marginal savings of JIT operations.

Avoiding downtime risk means evaluating how decisions made now will affect production years down the line and ensuring there are plans in place to mitigate any risks. Commercial PC product lines have variable availability due to demand. Machine learning tasks and other processing-intensive computing needs are often computed on high-performance graphics processing units (GPU).

The unprecedented demand for GPUs — driven by diverse industries such as gaming, cryptocurrency mining and data science — has created significant challenges for industrial applications reliant on advanced computing capabilities. Shortages inflate prices and impede procurement timelines.

If a critical component of a business-grade PC fails in production, is it available? How fast? IPC vendors have built-in processes to support industrial needs, including hardware partnerships that ensure manufacturers are not restricted to commercial supply chains and are left competing with consumers.

Cybersecurity in industrial PC environments

Cybersecurity is another crucial consideration in mitigating downtime risk. As plants are increasingly open to remote access, with machines integrated into the IoT, they become vulnerable to cyberattacks. A breach or hack can compromise sensitive data and intellectual property or even result in sabotage of manufacturing processes.

IPC systems are designed with industrial cybersecurity demands in mind, offering secure-by-default installation and robust user access control integration into existing plant security and regular security patching. Business-grade PC components require additional investment in robust cybersecurity measures after installation and regular maintenance to mitigate cyber risks and ensure the continued reliability of these critical systems.

Safely scale plant production

When developing new machines or adding capabilities that require additional computing power, decision makers in industrial settings should look to application-designed IPC solutions. Staying competitive requires the latest technology and that technology necessitates advanced processing power.

Reducing short-term costs using mass-produced computing solutions can lead to long-term risks. IPC vendors offer much higher standard capabilities than commercial systems, with memory and processing that can be customized for applications. Made-to-order IPC systems undergo rigorous testing of each component upon assembly to ensure no defective or sub-spec parts could cause intermittent failures or experience a shorter-than-expected life span. This quality analysis process may include X-ray inspection, hardware limit tests and long-duration software stress tests. IPC systems may also integrate high-level processing power typically required for specific AI and simulation applications.

Graphics processing units-based industrial PC made for artificial intelligence inference applications including vision inspection, defect detection, predictive maintenance and automated guided vehicles. Courtesy: Siemens

Graphics processing units-based industrial PC made for artificial intelligence inference applications including vision inspection, defect detection, predictive maintenance and automated guided vehicles. Courtesy: Siemens

IPCs provide long-term availability, which is crucial for consistency and legacy system support, while commercial PCs often undergo rapid hardware and software changes, making long-term compatibility a challenge. Industrial conditions also accelerate the wear and tear of business-grade hardware components, necessitating frequent replacements and incurring additional maintenance costs.

IPC solutions for industrial applications have deployments measured with decades in mind, not months or years. A secure parts supply chain is a key indicator of operational stability and competitiveness in industrial environments. While commercial PCs may offer immediate cost savings, high maintenance expenses coupled with long-term downtime risks necessitate a strategic investment in Industrial PCs.

A holistic view of future scenarios is essential for planning new machines and scaling existing operations. If critical computer processing hardware fails for a production system, what do repairs look like and what is the timeframe? Employing generic commercial PC components requires assembly, configuration and on-site testing before repairs can be made. Customized, application-specific IPC solutions are tested, configured and delivered ready to install. Working with IPC vendors means you have a supply chain partner instead of being left to the whims of various sellers for crucial parts.

As industry further digitizes, more decisions will be made each year that will add computing requirements. Understanding the complexities of fulfilling those computing demands, including both immediate technical needs and long-term support considerations, will be critical to the future success of many businesses.

Author Bio: Kristen Quasey is Product Manager for SIMATIC Industrial PC at Siemens, where she works with companies on plant-floor technology solutions.