Rugged, Factory-friendly Panel PCs Clear a Path for Industry 4.0

Rugged, Factory-friendly Panel PCs Clear a Path for Industry 4.0

Intuitive interfaces advance data capture and access from field to factory floor in often hostile environments. The touch screen Panel PCs that enable these functions must meet demanding standards to remain functional.


The industrial landscape and its production systems are in transformation, becoming smarter, more flexible and connected as part of the Internet of Things (IoT). More than just Internet-enabled, intelligent industrial systems are sharing data in real-time and moving the world closer to Industry 4.0, a concept coined by a Germany-based group of experts in science and industry. Industry 4.0 represents the next industrial revolution, preceded by three disruptive leaps in industrial processing; first came steam power and mechanization through machine tools, next electricity fueled new techniques in mass production, and most recently advances in electronics and IT have accelerated the industry by enabling automation.

Efficiency and productivity are essential to this shift, driving advancements in the interfaces used to communicate and interact with smart industrial systems. Answering the need for systems that require capabilities greater than just back-end visualization of an industrial application, highly rugged panel PCs are stepping in as a high performance option – delivering compute power that enables control, efficiency and reliability in a factory-friendly design (Figure 1).

Figure 1
Efficient interaction through high performance panel PCs is integral to Industry 4.0, as illustrated by ADLINK’s PENTA product line.

Constructed as a complete unit, with motherboard and LCD screen display in a rugged, sealed and fanless housing – these unique systems bring intuitive, easy operation to the most diverse and demanding industrial environments. Innovations in touch technologies mimic the familiar functions of commercial portable devices, while enabling connected, fault-free performance on the factory floor. High compute performance blended with rugged design and construction creates a purpose-built industrial system, helping integrate processes for maximum output, improving cost efficiencies and ensuring uptime. Specific system requirements vary depending on the type of deployment, such as food, pharma or general industrial, yet all require a common foundation of rugged design features and certifications.

Advancements in Touch Technology

Touch technologies are increasingly designed into the latest generation panel PCs used in rugged settings – avoiding knobs and switches that can reduce productivity, as well as accuracy. Intuitive and user-friendly options are based on the familiar touch, swipe and drag motions used with consumer portable devices. Traditional keyboards can still be attached directly, or touching the panel PC surface can essentially create a virtual keyboard to enable simple control of industrial software.

Key customer requirements for a touch display interface are abrasion resistance and non-glass surface options. Pressure-sensitive or resistive systems are most commonly found in manufacturing settings; resistive systems react when pressure is applied to the screen, allowing workers to successfully interact with the display wearing thick gloves, and without any scratching to the display surface. This provides a sturdy interface optimized for factory settings where operators are often outfitted with heavy protective gear.

As a specific market example, capacitive glass touch screens cannot be used in the food industry for several reasons. In humid environments, liquid production residues and condensation can accumulate on the display. While resistive touch screens can operate without problems even under these conditions, the usability of capacitive touch screens would be severely limited. As mentioned previously, resistive touch panels can be operated even while wearing gloves, which isn’t the case with capacitive displays. Finally, a glass display is something of a taboo for the food industry; should a glass display break, an entire batch of product can no longer be sold due to the possibility of glass fragment contamination. Rugged construction used in resistive screens includes a layer of polyester, eliminating the possibility of product contamination if a system screen is damaged.

Extreme Rugged Design

Panel PC systems must be designed to function properly in a wide range of temperatures, from single-digits up to 50°C. Used in harsh settings, they must be particularly resistant to shock and vibration. Fanless designs are essential, as mechanical components in general, and moving parts in particular, are highly susceptible to interference and failure due to wear, leading to greater maintenance and repair requirements.

For industrial deployment, the panel PC enclosure must be designed to be completely resistant to dust and other contamination in order to prevent malfunctions or even complete system failure. Without proper rugged design, dust can easily accumulate in vent holes; this makes it difficult to clean the devices, since liquid breaching the enclosures can also seriously damage the system.

Sealed-system, rugged panel PCs are rated for protection against environmental factors according to the internationally-recognized Ingress Protection (IP) ranking system (Table 1). Panel PCs with a rating of IP69K can perform in ~80C ° (176°F) and handle ca.80-100 bar (1450 PSI) pressure at a distance of 15 cm (5.91 inches). Their connectors are made of stainless steel and are generally bolted rather than snapped into the system. This means they can survive the intense power washing that may be required in certain types of industrial settings. In addition, a pressure-compensating valve is installed in the device, preventing expansion of the unit when the temperature rises.

Table 1
An IP classification includes two numbers; the first refers to protection against solid matter like dust and dirt, while the second number references protection against liquids. For example, IP65 systems are completely dust tight and are resistant to being sprayed with water; IP69K rated systems are fully sealed for protection, as well as ease of cleaning with no residual substances able to infiltrate the enclosure.

Reliable High Performance

Incorporating embedded roadmap processors ensures long-life to the system, often deployed with a performance expectation of five years or 50,000 hours; consistency and longevity of design also simplifies software deployment and upgrades across the industrial enterprise. Depending on the end-use environment, these systems may include failsafe automotive HDDs, SSDs or industry-standard CompactFlash cards as bootable storage media, which increases data security and system reliability. In general, more systems are moving from rotating hard disks to solid state drives, again, to avoid the pitfalls of moving parts.

Flexible connectivity is imperative; with industrial panel PCs offering multiple Ethernet interfaces to enable both Internet and intranet communications, as well as a WiFi option. To connect additional peripherals such as barcode and 2D/3D scanners, industrial units feature an extensive range of interfaces: USB 2.0, PS/2, Ethernet, serial ports, as well as PCI, PCIe, and Mini-PCIe slots. RS-232 connectors are also still valued commodities to provide a 1:1 physical interface for low level I/O cards.

Abrasion-resistant, resistive touch displays offer the most common LCD display resolution of 1280 x 1024 pixels and are available in multiple sizes, from tablets to 19-inch options. These systems are better served with internal rather than external power supplies, part of a gap-free design that ensures a sealed system, resistant to dirt and moisture. Advancements continue and enable some systems with additional features, such as detachable cables. Instead of cutting the cable and replacing an entire system, the unit can readily be removed for servicing as needed.

Long-term availability assures that systems and system components can be subsequently ordered in the same configuration over a period of many years. IT administration benefits from this consistency, allowing software images with identical configurations to be deployed on all systems without the need to consider costly individual system specifications. Users can avoid cumbersome and expensive modifications, and also benefit from a unified IT landscape and maintenance strategy by deploying the same system factory-wide.

Optimized panel PCs can be operated continuously for more than five years or 50,000 hours without maintenance, expressed as Mean Time Between Failure (MTBF).  This is in step with a key principle of factory modernization and Industry 4.0, reducing costs caused by unnecessarily short cycles of repair or ongoing maintenance.

End-to-End Quality Control in Food Processing

Effective deployment of panel PCs is illustrated by Ulmer Fleisch, part of the Müller Group and one of the leading companies in the southern German meat processing industry. “One of the key aspects of food safety is seamless proof of origin for the consumer,” explained Michael Palz, IT Head of Ulmer Fleisch.

As a result, continuous tracking of products from initial delivery to meat counter is an essential part of the manufacturing process; Ulmer Fleisch handles this with a range of software applications that maintain efficient process control, from quality assurance to logistics to complete traceability along the entire value chain.

This online process control solution is accessed via panel PCs by employees from numerous divisions located throughout the company’s offices and processing factory. These systems are subjected to harsh treatment, including daily cleaning with high pressure water jets.  An industrial IP69K Panel PC is deployed throughout the facility, with all interfaces (USB, Ethernet and serial connections) facing downwards with integrated screw connectors uniquely matched to each cable. Their connectors are extremely robust and can be quickly attached using an innovative locking mechanism.

In this way, cleaning teams can start working without lengthy instructions and also use efficient high pressure or steam cleaning without running the risk of damaging the panel PC systems due to improper cleaning. Should there be any malfunction, a panel PC can be replaced in less than five minutes by a single employee. It’s lightweight and incorporates screw connectors that cannot be mixed up during replacement. Previous solutions had failed regularly due to moisture and water ingress. Based on a lower rating of IP65, these could withstand only low pressure water and required either extra protection panels or the costly task of separate cleaning.

Layout and installation of the display, as well as the implementation of interfaces, was particularly challenging as these areas are vulnerable to water ingress into the system. This must not happen, even under high pressure water stream, as it is necessary to conduct cleaning procedures at least once a day at Ulmer Fleisch. Rather than modify systems to accommodate the demands of the production floor, Ulmer Fleisch opted for IP69K protected systems that could be installed as delivered and offer a MTBF of 50,000 hours. These systems meet Ulmer Fleisch’s requirement for daily cleaning, and can withstand a jet of water that impacts the casing from a distance of 10 cm with 100 bar of pressure, a water flow of 15 L/min and a water temperature of   80°C.

Rugged Systems for Toy Production

Illustrating how panel PCs are integral to shopfloor modernization, industrial panel PCs are used at the Playmobil plant operated by Geobra Brandstätter GmbH & Co. KG.  The company is Germany’s largest toy manufacturer, producing 2.6 billion Playmobil figurines since 1974 and employing more than 3,700 people worldwide. In order to meet increasing demands to achieve greater performance from existing software, the management team at Geobra recently implemented an innovative shopfloor IT system based on new panel PCs.

Diverse production environments and the particular qualities of Playmobil figurines mandate dependable IT support; in turn, shopfloor terminals are available at many points on the production line to enable critical control and management of work routines. Using a customized data acquisition and information panel (AIP) available to all deployed panel PCs, employees in charge of production planning and manufacturing control, production managers, as well as controllers and business managers, can quickly and conveniently access crucial data anywhere on the shop floor (Figure 2).

Figure 2
ADLINK’s Giant Series panel PCs can be mounted in a flexible and convenient way in any location thanks to a VESA-compatible mounting system.

Accessing AIP data that is tailored to their particular requirements, individual users can make temporary or short-term changes to the production schedule, solve problems in specific production batches, and deal with any other potential complications to be immediately identified. As needed, countermeasures can be taken immediately, including subsequent ordering or re-planning, all in real-time. With connected systems, all data can also be evaluated to improve the enterprise’s strategic planning.

The industrial panel PCs used by Geobra are equipped with a completely enclosed and durable metal casing IP65 rating, including connectors and cable passageways. Reading devices for Legic and Mifare transponders can be connected quickly using the IO interfaces designed for industrial use. The Giant D17 features 2x- Gigabit Ethernet, 4x USB 2.0, 5x serial interfaces, as well as a Mini PCle socket, PCIe x1 slot and additional PCl slot for further expansion. WLAN cards for wireless communication can be integrated in advance upon request. Rotating hard disks are eliminated to remove possible points of failure, and instead the PCs are equipped with heavy-duty compact flash storage media. Fanless and without vent holes, this system utilizes a passive cooling concept which emits the generated heat from the system to the outside via the enclosure.

Blending performance and extreme rugged design in a streamlined system is the primary value of panel PC systems. However there is no such thing as a ‘typical deployment.’ Yet high-grade modular designs are providing easy configuration to adapt to market-specific needs, including non-stop performance, flexible connectivity, industry-specific requirements and rugged certifications.  Panel PCs are essential to the Industry 4.0 transformation – these all-in-one high performance devices allow manufacturers to capitalize on proven rugged technologies and the Internet of Things (IoT), improving efficiencies at every point on the manufacturing line.

ADLINK Technology
San Jose, CA
(408) 360-0200