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28 May, 2022

Are we entering the age of the IPC?

15 October, 2021

Industrial PCs (IPCs) are an increasingly common sight on factory floors. Drives & Controls asked Grant Coffin, Rockwell Automation’s Business Manager for Software & Controls, in the UK & Ireland, to explain the role that IPCs can play in the modern factory.

Industrial PCs (IPCs) are now used widely on factory floors for a variety of applications. But some users are still slightly wary about using what has traditionally been seen as an office technology in the harsh conditions of a production environment.

Rockwell Automation, which has a long history as a supplier of dedicated industrial controls, expanded further into the IPC arena last year when it acquired ASEM, the specialist Italian manufacturer of industrial PCs and HMIs. Grant Coffin, Rockwell Automation’s business manager for Software & Controls, in the UK & Ireland says the acquisition has had “a massive impact”, with the release of the VersaView 6300 range of IPCs, which users can customise. “We supply literally tens of thousands of variants of IPC and monitors,” he adds, “and can produce customised IPCs to suit every requirement”.

 

The VersaView 6300 family offers a portfolio of open-architecture industrial PCs, thin clients and monitors. Users can order exactly what they need to meet their performance requirements.

 

But why choose IPCs at all? According to Grant, they provide a scalable and flexible way to monitor adjust what is going on in a factory. He sees them becoming an increasingly important part of the manufacturing edge in a wider IT/OT connected enterprise.

He believes Industry 4.0 and digitalisation initiatives mean IPCs are coming into their own. The need to link information across all the various corporate levels in manufacturing and production environments requires increasing amounts of computing power which, according to Grant, can only be delivered by IPCs. Modern IPCs, he points out, bring together the worlds of IT and OT to facilitate the vast amount of data that needs to pass from one area to another, to analyse and store data at the edge, and to reduce the burden on increasingly resource-hungry software platforms.

Strengths and limitations

Among IPCs’ advantages, Grant cites there:

• flexibility, other software can be loaded alongside traditional HMI software

• customisation; PC’s can be tailored by the user and built to suit their needs

• models can operate as an HMI, server, or client

• ability to customise communications hardware such as Ethernet and serial ports

• close unwanted USB ports, functionality often inaccessible from HMI’s closed OS

• update to the latest patches and anti-virus software

• commercially similar to an HMI

• options for high processing speeds, large RAM, and memory storage for complex applications, data logging, or where data storage is required.

 

The VersaView 6300 family offers a portfolio of open-architecture industrial PCs, thin clients and monitors. Users can order exactly what they need to meet their performance requirements.

  

IPCs do have potential limitations when compared to dedicated industrial controllers and HMIs. For example:

• the life of an IPC OS may be shorter than that of an HMI (Rockwell uses Win10 IOT LTSC2019 as it is expected to have an extended lifecycle)

• IPC can become more expensive as more functionality is added

• Additional cyber considerations may be applicable

• HMI applications can quickly and easily be reloaded

There may be a temptation to use a low-cost, mass-produced office PCs for factory duties, but Grant warns that office PCs are “not built to withstand the industrial environment with the levels of heat, moisture, vibration or shock” that an industrial PC encounters. IPC components are chosen for their longevity, often being soldered to PCBs increasing quality and reliability. So, IPC’s can be expected to last for many years, generally more than ten, where an office-grade PC generally has lifecycle of two to three years. Rockwell MTBF (mean time between failures) for its IPCs is similar to that of dedicated controls.

Cyber fears

A common worry among potential users of industrial PCs is that they will be more vulnerable to cyber-attacks. HMIs and dedicated controllers are built on closed OS which makes it difficult to access but also makes it difficult to apply enhance security features such as closing hardware (Ethernet/USB/Serial) ports. IPC OS’s protection is continually updated and can be enhanced by applying end point protection.

Security on IPC’s can further be enhanced by ‘thin client’ technology. Grant explains that a thin client is a simple computer that has been optimised for establishing a remote connection in a server-based computing architecture. This enables centralising of applications management, reducing maintenance cost, and provides increased credential safeguards.

Standard IPCs can be used as thin clients, but Rockwell’s VersaView 6300 IPCs are “ThinManager-ready”, so can serve content to multiple “zero clients” using software called ThinManager. Thin and zero clients can be used anywhere in an industrial location where a HMI is needed, enabling access to multiple types of content in a single environment – such as visualisation software, PLC programming software, email, VNC content, video camera images and other types of content – to many different device types. Thin client technology also enables mobility delivering persona specific content by device and their location.

Visualisation and operator interfaces provide situational awareness, machine diagnostics and performance data to operators for them to act on. However, according to Grant, automation systems are becoming faster and more capable, surpassing the limits of human ability. Emerging technologies such as real-time analytics and AI will increase the criticality of edge data and processing.

Rockwell is developing a new approach to edge infrastructures that incorporates a stack of essential applications, such as: virtualised computing, storage, and networking; cybersecurity; IIoT gateways; VPNs; routers; analytics; and AI. This will support multiple ecosystems and interoperability for a variety of applications.

Edge computing not only provides situational awareness to operators, but it can also provide data storage and abstraction, enabling real-time process and manufacturing optimisation and performance analytics at the machine or manufacturing line. This allows data to be processed in the “right” place and manipulated for use locally and structured before streaming to larger on-premise or cloud-based infrastructures in scalable IoT architectures. Alternatively, where no larger infrastructure is present, edge processing can enable some of the optimisation benefits in a single standalone location.

Grant believes that IPCs and dedicated controllers “will continue to sit side-by-side for the foreseeable future. Both have their own distinct place in industry, and both will continue to develop and grow organically over the next few years.”

He predicts that the role of the IPC will become increasingly important as the IT and OT worlds converge, enabling the seamless interaction of data across the enterprise, so the right people can get the right information to help them be more productive. “The scalability and customisation features of the VersaView 6300 will provide a right size form and function regardless of application, meaning machine designers can find the perfect product for whatever their application and feature set is.”

VersaView 6300 Industrial PCs, Thin Clients, and Monitors

IPCs take cues from mobile phones

Rockwell says that automation users wanting to run third-party applications on plant floors will benefit from the robust nature of its VersaView IPCs. Low-profile bezels on the widescreen displays and monitors allow OEM machine-builders to set their equipment apart visually from the crowd.

As more applications become compatible with multi-touch operation, projected capacitive display PCs and monitors are becoming more important. Taking cues from the mobile phone industry, they appeal to a generation of engineers and technicians that have grown up using pinch, zoom, swipe and other hand gestures. All these gestures can be used with VersaView PCs and monitors using built-in software.

The VersaView 6300 PCs allow users to order exactly what they need to achieve their required performance, while not paying for functions they do not need. That helps them meet budgets, while getting the performance they need.




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