PCs are roughly divided into industrial ones and consumer ones. What is the difference between industrial PCs and consumer PCs? We will explain what an industrial PC is, the features of the industrial PC and how it is used, and explain why the market size of the industrial PC is expanding.
What is an industrial PC? Differences from consumer PCs
What is commonly referred to as an industrial PC does not have a clear standard. Industrial PCs are sometimes called FAPCs (factory automation personal computers), embedded PCs, embedded PCs, etc., and they are also collectively called industrial PCs. What you can see from the names of these PCs is that PCs incorporated as part of control devices and industrial equipment are categorized as industrial PCs at manufacturing sites and management equipment.
Conversely, PCs used for development, office work, and home use, rather than manufacturing sites or management equipment, are called consumer PCs. Consumer PCs are designed with an emphasis on processing power, versatility, and cost, assuming that they will be used in a wide range. On the other hand, when designing industrial PCs, emphasis is placed on long-term stable operation and resistance to harsh environments.
Conditions and characteristics required for industrial PCs
Compared to consumer PCs, industrial PCs have the following features.
- Long-term stability of supply and maintenance
New models of consumer PCs will appear one after another, and the OS and software will be replaced with new ones in a short period of time. Such changes are a heavy burden that requires enormous labor, time, and budget, such as replacement of equipment and re-verification of operation.
In addition, for consumer PCs, we will end the supply and support of parts for the old model as we move to the new model. For large-scale equipment control systems that are expected to operate for a long period of time, the end of parts supply and support is a major problem that may require system restructuring. From this point of view, long-term stability of supply and maintenance is essential for industrial PCs.
- Support for legacy models
In addition to the promise of long-term stability in parts supply and maintenance, it is also a feature of industrial PCs that it can support control systems of business models made by older generations. The word “○ generation” is used for the basic part of the configuration of consumer PCs. When this generation is switched, it may not be possible to use it in combination or it may not be able to demonstrate its performance. Industrial PCs are often compatible with these legacy models (old generations) and can maintain control systems for the long term.
- Long-term continuous operation is possible
Consumer PCs are said to be designed with a useful life of several years on the assumption that the power will be turned off when not in use. On the other hand, industrial PCs used in manufacturing sites and infrastructure control systems must operate for long periods of time without interruption. Therefore, highly durable and reliable parts are used to enable continuous operation, especially for important parts such as the motherboard and power supply.
- Operation in harsh environments
Unlike consumer PCs, which are intended for use in offices and homes, industrial PCs must be considered for their potential to be installed in a variety of environments. It is designed to handle harsh installation environments such as high temperature and humidity, dust, vibration, and the effects of electromagnetic waves.
- Top support for maintenance / restoration
If a problem occurs with a PC used at home, the problem can be solved by replacing parts or solving software problems. However, when it is used in industry, it is essential not only to simply replace parts and software itself, but also to prevent the recurrence of troubles. Thorough investigation is required, such as why the trouble occurred, what measures can be taken to prevent it from recurring, and whether it will affect other software or equipment.
Some manufacturers of industrial PCs perform these verifications and publish the results as reports. In addition, we often have a system in place to maintain stable operation and restore as much as possible in the event of trouble. Many industrial PCs have this kind of high-level support.
Industrial PCs, which are often used in special conditions and environments compared to consumer PCs, have these characteristics. In order to meet these conditions, parts that are not generally used are used, and the support system for maintaining equipment operation is substantial. Therefore, industrial PCs are more expensive than consumer PCs, and the selling price is generally higher. In addition, specifications are often selected and set according to the usage conditions and environment, and may be made to order.
Area of industrial PC and PLC
Now, let’s look back on what kind of demand there is for industrial PCs and how they have evolved. Also, how is it separated from the PLC (programmable logic computer) that is used as a part that controls control along with industrial PCs?
Before the spread of the PC, various types of computers existed. The same is true for industrial computers. Before the spread of PCs, industrial computers were board-type computers built into racks.
PC-shaped ones like the ones we have today appeared in the 1980s. In the 1990s, with the innovation of CPU and the advent of Windows, board type PCs became less popular, and industrial PCs became mainstream.
On the other hand, PLCs specializing in control have become popular mainly by engineers and developers in the field. Sequence diagrams that have been used in the past can be easily assembled in the form of ladder programs, and further simplification of operations and visualization of controls have been realized. With the evolution of the PLC itself and the enhancement of the service system, PLC has become more widespread in the control field.
In this way, PLC is better at controlling some of the things that industrial PCs can do, so we have been replacing PLCs with PLCs where we used to use industrial PCs. However, there are some things that can only be done with an industrial PC, and there are some things that an industrial PC is good at.
PLC is a more specialized position in terms of control. On the other hand, industrial PCs can be said to have a wide range of defense in which control data can be processed and displayed or linked with other applications. Industrial PCs and PLCs, which have some overlaps in what they can do and were considered to be exclusive to each other, are now evolving in different areas of their specialty.
Why the demand for industrial PCs is increasing
As we saw in the previous section, industrial PCs have been separated from PLCs, but the industrial PC market has changed in recent years.
In 2019, MIC Research Institute published “Current Status and Prospects of the Industrial PC Market Expanding with Edge Computing 2019 Edition”. According to this, industrial PCs are expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 5.7% from 2018 to 2022, reaching a market size of 136.1 billion yen.
There are two reasons why the demand for industrial PCs is expected to grow and the market is expected to grow, as in this forecast.
One is that industrial PCs have become as reliable and environmentally resistant as PLCs. PLC has traditionally been one step ahead in terms of operational stability and environmental resistance such as airtightness and waterproofness. However, in recent years, the difference is being filled by the development of CPUs and motherboards that generate less heat.
Another reason is that the “importance of information” in control systems is drawing attention again. As IoT and AI are put into practical use and become important in control systems, the importance of exchanged information is increasing. The pursuit of how to obtain information, deliver it without losing its value, and how to use it effectively is being pursued.
There are technologies that are attracting attention in order to make more effective use of such valuable information. That is edge computing that enhances the real-time nature of information and takes IoT and AI to the next step.
In traditional IoT, information has been used only for visualization in many cases. However, in the future, it is expected that a difference in productivity will be created by analyzing and utilizing the collected information as big data. For that purpose, edge computing will be required to analyze data on the site side as necessary and increase the speed of information utilization. The demand for industrial PCs is increasing due to the demand for industrial devices that can analyze such data, connect to the cloud, and visualize existing data.
MIC Research Institute’s market research also predicts how industrial PCs will be used for edge computing applications. There are various theories about the definition of edge computing, and although edge computing defined by MIC Research Institute is in a narrow sense, its transition is expected to show significant growth. From 5.1% in 2018 to 21% in 2022, we anticipate a future where many industrial PCs will be used for edge computing.
Entering an era in which industrial PCs are making great strides at the edge
At the same time that edge computing is becoming more important, so is the demand for industrial PCs. In addition, as the fields of utilization expand, industrial PCs will evolve more than ever. Industrial PCs may become indispensable for new control systems in the future.