Development boards such as Raspberry Pi are available for as low as $40 per board and provide a cost-effective way to test out automation ideas. When it comes to implementing ideas in real-world industrial scenarios however, a tested and proven industrial-grade embedded computing solution is the best choice. It provides a stable, high-performing, and secure system that can meet most automation needs since most development boards are not suitable for complex industrial-grade applications.
Development boards are bare-bones components that need to be put together based on specific needs. Most come with only a computer board lacking a power interface, OS, memory, and external case. Most industrial computing platforms on the other hand, are ready-to-deploy and come with some or all of the following capabilities:
- Rugged design with multiple mounting options that can withstand extreme industrial environments
- Customized OS, utilities, libraries, and applications
- Multiple I/Os and communication interfaces with built-in remote communication capabilities
- Support for industrial protocols such as Modbus and optimized for data acquisition from field devices
- Easy monitoring and troubleshooting capabilities
- APIs for additional customizations and integration with other systems and applications
Depending on application needs and the complexity of the project, you might be able to deploy and use computing platforms right out of the box, enabling faster time-to-market.
Low-cost development boards typically come with only one Ethernet port and a few USB ports. Serial ports, which are essential for interfacing with the field devices and wireless interfaces required for remote data acquisition, are rare. Additional interfaces will need to be built, integrated, tested, and optimized on your own. Industrial computing solutions, however, typically come with multiple communication interfaces that include Ethernet, serial, and cellular interfaces for maximum flexibility.
Certifications for Industrial Safety Standards
UL and CE certifications are a must for equipment deployed in industrial environments. Computer development boards often do not comply with standards. Hence, there is no guarantee they will survive harsh industrial environments. Industrial computing solutions go through rigorous testing to meet various certification requirements.
Industrial equipment runs a high risk of exposure to dust and water. Equipment not protected against the ingress of these potential hazards will fail. Most computer development boards do not have an enclosure and hence a conformal coating necessary for protecting circuits cannot be applied. Industrial computers must comply with ingress protection requirements. In fact, an IP certification is a must in some applications such as marine and oil and gas.
The development boards often come with just a one-year warranty. An industrial-grade product should have a warranty of at least 5 years. Due to the high cost of replacing industrial equipment, operators expect equipment to work without failure for at least 10-15 years. This standard applies to industrial computing solutions as well.
Software Service and Support
Software consulting and services are lifelines that developers depend on when they do not have enough knowledge of certain software components or cannot solve issues that arise. For example, when a developer faces an OS issue, they can contact the product support team, which should have the expertise to fix the problem. If you are using a development board, the only option is to post questions on the developer forum and hope that some other user has faced a similar issue.
Developing an embedded computing platform requires in-depth knowledge on how systems work. For example, a modern RISC platform comes with a NAND/NOR flash disk for the root file system. An inexperienced programmer will design an application that frequently reads and writes data without proper acknowledgement, thereby limiting the performance of the hard drive. This could also result in bad sectors in the disk and eventually cause a boot failure. If you hire a software support and consulting firm for the platform, they will design the application better and give advice on things like where to save temporary data in the RAM file system.
Most industrial computing platforms come with various levels of software service and support packages. For IIoT applications, you work with a company that can also provide software services and technical support. The support team can learn from the issues you face, gain valuable experience, and you can benefit from their expertise, creating a win-win situation.
More often than not, hardware manufacturers do not spend time integrating peripheral components such as USBs or PCIe interfaces that are bundled with their hardware platforms. They often sell third-party components as part of their platform without thoroughly testing the compatibility of these components. In addition to hardware components, vendors must also take steps to optimize the overall performance of their hardware platform, which includes things like boot speed, as well as kernel and device driver integration. Providing device drivers and utilities for download on a piecemeal basis is not helpful as users sometimes have to deal with conflicts in device driver functionality on their own, especially with multi-device drivers. In extreme cases, these drivers might corrupt an OS. Select a hardware platform vendor who will provide a full software image that is tested and verified. This will save trouble and help you develop stable applications at a much faster pace.
When it comes to operating systems, choose one that is fine-tuned and optimized to your development needs rather than a basic operating system. The OS company can remove unnecessary processes and applications, build a kernel better-suited to industrial applications, and constantly provide system patches and upgrades to plug security holes.
Utilities and Libraries
The key to any hardware platform is an extensive set of libraries and utilities available to customize the platform and make it user-friendly. Without these libraries, developers would have to spend time building platform related functions. Hardware auto-diagnostic functions are very useful in an industrial environment. For example, a push-button function that triggers self-diagnostics in industrial equipment helps developers quickly analyze problems in the field. Other useful functions, such as system save, restore to system default, auto dialup, as well as tools and utilities that can read WiFi and cellular signals, can reduce the time a developer has to invest in troubleshooting issues, especially issues relating to system partition.
Software libraries that implement industrial automation or IIoT-specific functions and protocols, such as OpenSSL hardware library, Modbus, Ethernet/IP, CAN bus, and MQTT, give a distinct advantage to developers working in the IIoT field. A good platform provider will commit resources to optimize their hardware platform by developing software utilities and libraries.
The typical lifetime of an industrial platform is 5 years or longer. Industrial-platform vendors must therefore commit resources to long-term maintenance of their software environment. Updates to the kernel or libraries of a computing platform must be thoroughly tested before release to prevent application software failure. Development-board vendors typically do not adhere to these requirements because these boards were originally created as educational tools to help developers create proof of concept. Although some organizations, such as the Raspberry Pi foundation, are known for large active developer communities, long-term support is usually not a priority.
Cyber-attacks on industrial systems have increased in recent years. As more devices are brought online, security is a key concern for users and operators. Embedded applications should be built on a secure platform that can extend the security features to the applications that it hosts. In addition, compliance with cybersecurity standards, such as IEC 62443-4, guarantees a high level of security.
Make sure your development platform supports the cybersecurity level and standard that applications require. Additional functions, such as security boot, help strengthen the security of embedded applications.
The Open-Platform Advantage
Open source software provides developers with maximum flexibility. In this model, developers are co-owners with an equal stake in adding functionalities and solving issues, which means the software is constantly evolving. Since a security issue affects the entire user community, solutions are found quickly and are available to everyone. Debian Linux is a good example of a popular operating system distribution. Many companies have dedicated teams that work on building libraries and drivers for this distribution.
At first glance, computer development boards might be appealing due to low cost. However, after considering their lack of features and functions, you will see their actual cost could be higher than deploying a tried and tested industrial computing solution.