Integrating new IoT devices into operations isn’t always easy. Businesses often face challenges when incorporating new solutions, like overcoming interoperability or future scalability.
But in some cases, businesses have more than just the run-of-the-mill concerns, especially when their needs call for using IoT devices in rugged and inhospitable environments. How can they find devices that can function under extreme conditions, like areas with temperatures constantly below zero or in mines 2500-6500 feet underground? And how can they guarantee those devices will last over time?
Luckily, ruggedized IoT is advancing rapidly to meet the needs of businesses operating in out-of-the-ordinary environments.
David Zhu-Grant, Senior Product Manager at global industrial-PC manufacturer OnLogic; Jason Lu, Product Manager for IoT with computing-hardware leader ASUS; and Chad Hutchinson, Vice President of Engineering at Crystal Group, a leading designer of rugged computing hardware, explain the best approach for implementing industrial rugged IoT devices and the key role partnerships play in rapidly advancing this technology (Video 1).
What industries benefit the most from ruggedized IoT devices?
David Zhu-Grant: It is a pretty broad spectrum—manufacturing, warehousing logistics, smart agriculture, smart cities, mining, and energy. These industries have environments with conditions that range from very cold to very hot; there’s vibration, impacts, or shock to vehicles; and it can be quite electrically noisy as well, from a radio frequency-emissions perspective.
Jason Lu: As more and more IoT devices are coming online, they are being deployed in different environments. For example, an IoT device in a McDonald’s drive-through might need to survive below-zero conditions in wintertime, and the temperature inside the display enclosure could go as high as 70°C during the summer. The LCD display that you see the menu on also needs to be waterproof against rain and snow. Along with damage, waterdrops on outdoor touchscreens can also cause a false touch that triggers an unwanted operation. Ruggedized IoT devices are designed to operate in that kind of environment, among others.
“None of these #technologies works in isolation; it takes a lot of interconnected systems and knowledge to successfully implement a winning #IoT solution” – David Zhu-Grant, @OnLogic via @insightdottech
What are the biggest deployment challenges you see in these harsher environments?
Chad Hutchinson: One thing we see in industrial applications is sand and dust. For example, in mining you have very fine coal powder that gets into nooks and crannies where it can interrupt cooling systems and electrical connections. In the field, cooling in particular is an absolutely huge issue. On the other hand, you would think that electronics wouldn’t mind being in a cold environment, but if you get down to 40°C and below, commercial electronics don’t want to operate then either. Then you have maritime environments with salt fog. We see IoT devices deployed in things like oil rigs—a very dirty environment, but also a high-moisture environment.
One of the other big challenges that we run into is the power interface. Generally, IoT devices are designed for an office environment, someplace with regulated input voltage of 120 volts AC. Out in the field it varies: in switch yards 125 volts DC is common; aircraft, it’s 28 volts DC; automotive, 12 volt DC distribution.
David Zhu-Grant: They’re called non-carpeted environments: they’re still indoors, but they’re not really like an office environment. You still see temperature extremes and airborne particulates there. As Chad mentioned, dust can really impact cooling, and also reliability from a circuit board perspective. Electrical interference is another big one. A lot of warehouses and factories have big machinery that starts and stops, like air conditioning units, and that can cause EMI issues.
Even indoors you still have to deal with reliability and long-term usage. If it’s staying too hot for too long, your computer’s not going to last.
How does the environment itself play a role in creating or improving a ruggedized device?
Chad Hutchinson: Take shock and vibration. From a mechanical perspective, you have to prevent any differential movement between the circuit cards, because those are target places where dissimilar movement causes problems. So if you can prevent that movement with a really rigid chassis, that can help.
With humidity, salt fog, even fungus, believe it or not, you’re trying to put a barrier between the outside world and the electronics itself—generally a conformal coating of some kind that’s providing an insulating barrier.
When you have high temperatures and need cooling sources, creating a formal heat sink for devices that originally lack one is an option—even if the device is in the open air. Another thing you’re seeing in electronics these days is the converting to liquid cooling and plumbing via a source of cooling water.
In short, you look at each of the factors in the environment that is affecting the device, and you knock them down one at a time. For each of those things I mentioned the industry has pretty much found a way to solve for it.
What’s better for operations: buying off-the-shelf or seeking out custom ruggedized devices?
Chad Hutchinson: When you’re looking at IoT, in many cases you’re looking first at the functionality and capability that it brings to the table. If you can find an item that’s commercially available with the functionality you need, you can deploy that, test it in the environment, and see the ways in which it does and does not perform. If it works for you, provides the functionality, and lasts, then you’re probably done.
In other situations, you may not identify a commercially available item that has the functionality you need for your application, in which case you’re into a custom solution right from the get-go.
But let’s assume that there’s a commercially available item that can meet your needs, but it just won’t survive in the environment you have. That’s when ruggedized off-the-shelf electronics can really come into play—and be considerably cheaper than a pure, ground-up custom solution. That’s where you start going through and identifying only those functions of your specific environment that are causing a problem. If humidity isn’t really an issue, then you don’t add coatings and things of that nature.
Jason Lu: A rugged device will of course be more expensive from a cost or development perspective, so the idea needs to be planted in the very early stages. First, the solution needs to work in the intended operating environment. In order to achieve that goal the design, review, and validation times will be longer.
During development you can start thinking about whether to build it in-house or to outsource it. And then, how do you want to maintain it during operation? Do you want to consider remote update capability? Because of the time it takes in development validation, the initial cost is usually more. Once you take all this into consideration, then you can start thinking about whether the return on investment can be justified.
For example, a kiosk. If it’s an indoor environment, a regular, fan-based commercial PC might work. But if this kiosk is going to be outdoors, then most likely you have to go the rugged route, even though that’s going to be more expensive. But in terms of the operation life cycle, that will keep you running for the longest time. So with those kinds of consideration you’re making during the design phase, you would be able to justify your investment in the long run.
What are some use cases you’re seeing with rugged IoT devices?
Jason Lu: A good example I can share is of a robotic arm using AI vision computers to do the sorting and picking in a recycling plant. That’s not a very friendly operating environment for computers; they get dirty very quickly. For the vision processing you need a GPU card to be quick enough to react to the conveyor, and GPUs consume power and so come with a cooling fan.
A very dusty environment, a GPU, and a fan. So they put it in an air-conditioned enclosure, which is still expensive to build and hard to maintain, because that environment is not friendly to an air conditioner either.
We developed a fanless solution for this very high-performance CPU and very high-performance GPU. They have a machine that’s inside a big, aluminum enclosure with a fin sticking out. It’s heavy, but once it was deployed they didn’t have to think about it because the fanless design doesn’t care about the dust. Right now that project is in the DVT phase, and the customer is very excited to see how it’s working in the field.
David Zhu-Grant: We’ve got one really good example in the mining-industry space. It’s a company called Flasheye that uses LiDAR, laser-scanning technology, to detect anomalies and to prevent stoppages, malfunctions, and accidents within a mining-materials transport application.
Think of a conveyor belt with mining materials, rocks, and so forth going down it. And they’ve built this really smart solution using computer vision, so the AI is simultaneously looking at what’s happening with the rocks, the flow, the belt, any spillage over the sides, and whether any people are in dangerous zones around the belt. The system is also in a really harsh environment. It’s mining, so there’s that dust element to it, but it’s also in northern Sweden.
They really needed a computer that was going to be rugged. Obviously they picked an OnLogic computer! But the overall solution has been so successful that it’s won them some innovation awards in the mining industry—making things safer, and basically improving efficiency so they can have less downtime when those belts are damaged or there are issues with the material flow.
Chad Hutchinson: My example is an autonomous-vehicle application. It was a computer using LiDAR, radar, and sensors for computer vision and figuring out the driving scenario. So it needed considerable computer horsepower out in the vehicle itself.
The challenges were primarily thermal, with multiple GPUs and trying to get that heat out of the automobile. But then also power interface, because generally computers, servers, and IoT devices are designed to operate on 120 volts AC, as I mentioned before, and automotive is a 12 volt DC system. During a starting surge that voltage can actually get pulled down to 9 volts.
So we designed a custom power supply for the specific environment of 12 volts DC input, with an ATX power output that interfaces with commercially available motherboards and electronics. The GPUs had custom heat sinks that were liquid cooled and brought the heat to the outside of the cab to an external radiator.
Tell us what role partnerships and collaboration play in advancing rugged IoT.
David Zhu-Grant: Obviously from our point of view the hardware is a really big part of it. But the software layer and stacks on top of that really unlock the features in the hardware. That’s where Intel has been a great partner for us at OnLogic. The Intel vPro® platform in particular has been really good for us. And Intel has helped us connect the dots between the hardware we provide, the software providers, and the integration partners.
None of these technologies works in isolation; it takes a lot of interconnected systems and knowledge to successfully implement a winning IoT solution. And ultimately the customer succeeds from that collaboration.
Jason Lu: At ASUS, we develop motherboards and system solutions, but based on the CPU developed by Intel and other companies. The less power the CPU consumes, the less heat you need to deal with, which makes it easier to put together a system solution.
The Intel technology is usually on the leading edge, and on top of that it’s embedded. Intel is also very good at providing longevity support for selected CPUs, and that’s one reason we picked those CPUs to base our development on.
I think it’s a very good collaboration between the companies, one that provides a solid foundation for IoT applications to build upon. And companies appreciate it because it saves a lot of development time.
What should businesses be prioritizing as they move forward with integrating rugged IoT devices?
Chad Hutchinson: When you’re operating at the edge, out in the field, with harsh conditions, and you’re trying to include IoT devices in any kind of technology, you need to be thinking about those challenges as part of your project development.
Do your testing, figure out what challenges you have, and then go find targeted solutions for those problems. And get in touch with a partner that has those capabilities and can bring its expertise to bear.
David Zhu-Grant: I agree that it’s really important to pick a partner—not just one that’s going to sell you a box, but one that’s going to understand the industry you’re in and the challenges you’re facing. One that’s going to help guide you to that right solution.
To learn more about integrating ruggedized IoT devices, listen to our podcast on Bringing Industrial IoT Devices to Rugged Environments. For the latest innovations from ASUS, OnLogic, and Crystal Group, follow them on:
This article was edited by Erin Noble, copy editor.