In today’s industrial and utility worlds, automation and remote access are becoming key and Ethernet is emerging as the networking technology of choice. Many sites, while being physically remote from one another, need to be logically joined and often will all be controlled from one central control room. However, this means that there is generally less human presence on these remote sites, meaning that there is a need for more intelligent devices to control automation, monitoring and data acquisition.
Although the end devices themselves are now being developed with more intelligence and the ability to direct traffic on the Ethernet network, there is often a need for a computing platform within the remote sites. This can then be used for anything from running software programs for control and automation, to access control over the various devices.
For these applications, a standard desktop PC will not suffice as it will not be able to handle the harsh environments reliably. For this reason, industrial computers purpose built for extreme environments need to be used. Industrial computers can handle higher temperature ratings and do not come with moving parts such as fans that can get jammed and cause device failure. Often there is an option to have conformal coated parts which are resistant to humidity, dust and corrosion. These units will generally also have internal protection against power surges and EMI for use in substations and other high power environments.
Another scenario is when technicians or engineers need to physically go to a site in order to troubleshoot or maintain it. In these instances they need to gain access to devices, but often there is no computer for engineering access on site. Traditionally in these cases the engineer would take a laptop to communicate to devices, but again the problem arises that the hardware is not built for the environment and so this type of usage can reduce the lifespan.
The answer is the ruggedised computing platforms now becoming available at affordable prices. Rugged laptops and tablets can often provide the same computing power in a much lighter and more reliable, package. These devices will generally run an implementation of a standard OS, such as Windows, meaning that loading third party applications is a straightforward process. The hardware will often have a selection of interfaces for data acquisition and device maintenance, such as Ethernet, WiFi and serial COM ports. These devices will also not have any moving parts and use cooling fins that act as heatsinks and solid state drives.
Another option is to use embedded computers. Some networking hardware manufacturers are now including the option of a computing platform embedded directly in a switch or router as hot swappable line module. These are often relatively small form factor modules that provide the same computing power while taking up very little room. Also, these embedded computers will often have the same or similar compliance to standards as the networking hardware they are embedded in, meaning they can handle harsh environments without a problem.
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