How To Build An Industrial-Strength PC
Not so for PCs in manufacturing, construction, and other harsh environments. These systems really take a beating. They can be jarred by industrial equipment. Exposed to rain and snow, and to both extreme cold and heat. They may be splashed by caustic chemicals. Or pounded on by less-than-gentle workers.
System builders who can create "ruggedized" systems have access to new, lucrative markets. By learning to build battle-hardened boxes, you can expand your business, attract new clients, and widen your repertory of system-building skills.
In this recipe I'll explain everything you need to know to build PCs that are both cost-effective and ready for harsh industrial environments. We'll explore the common hazards facing PCs on the factory floor, as well as practical methods to "battle harden" boxes for other difficult environments. And, to keep these systems cost-effective, we will avoid hard-to-find, specialized hardware that can eat up your budget. Instead, we'll focus on practical solutions to bulletproof your PC builds.
This large 19-inch rack houses an industrial 4U rack-mount PC chassis, external drive bays, power-conditioning unit, rack-mounted monitor, and keyboard tray:
Know The Hazards
While industrial PCs may bear some resemblance to their office- and home-bound siblings, in fact they are a world apart. Industrial PCs must be able to take a beating every day and still come back for more. They must perform any thankless job, from data acquisition to numeric control of manufacturing equipment to inventory management. To handle these extreme demands, industrial PCs are encased in armor to withstand physical abuse; have special cooling (so they don't cook); and are, by design, protected from the harsh realities of a hazardous workplace.
If you want to build PCs for industry, you will first need to assess the hazards of the industry you want to build for. The best way is with a site survey. Whenever practical, make every attempt to survey the scene. Your goal: to know the hazards -- and the machines -- better than anyone else. Here's a list of what I call "natural enemies" to look for:
Using this list, take the opportunity to see your client's operation first-hand. Look for clues as to how your PCs will function in the field. This, in turn, may lead to process changes that can both improve the process and protect the PC.
But if it's either impossible or impractical to personally visit the site, at least talk at length with the client. Try to fully understand their operation and environment. Don't hesitate to ask questions or request photographs or video. Use the "Enemies" list above as a checklist for your survey.
Once you have completed the survey, it's time to spec out the systems and start building. Remember, there is no such thing as a computer that's impervious to all hazards. This theoretically indestructible PC would be very costly and, in all but the most dire circumstances, overkill. Instead, your clients need cost-effective protection from some subset of the major hazards we've discussed. Let's take a look at some practical solutions to some common hazards.
The Case: A PC's Protective Layer
A PC's enclosure provides both a rigid chassis for construction and a coat of protective armor. A choice of case is arguably the single most important decision for protecting your CPU and internals from harm.
First, choose the right form factor. Standard desktop and tower cases are stamped out of sheet metal of various gauges; heavier gauges, of course, provide better rigidity and protection. Aluminum exteriors cost a bit more, but they provide excellent protection, thermal advantages, and good looks.
Rack-mount cases offer industrial-grade protection and the security along with the organization of a standard 19-inch rack. With the recent demand for racked servers, the popularity and availability of rack-mounting have grown considerably, and costs have dropped. The height of rack-mount cases is specified in "units" corresponding to the standard height of single rack units. Industrial PCs are most commonly built in a "4U" rack cases that provides space for standard PCI cards and internals. Rack cases can be installed on sliding rails for easy access. For applications that must travel, rack-mount cases can be easily installed into flight cases to provide further physical protection. Additionally, racks can be shock mounted within flight cases for ultimate protection.
Here's an example of a 4U rack. This Antec 4U rack includes 400-Watt power supply, vibration-absorbing drive cage, and two front USB ports:
Play It Cool %96 And Clean
Your choice of case and power supply will provide a plan for cooling. Include additional fans whenever possible. In industrial situations, air filters can provide front-line protection from dust and airborne particles. Also, don't overlook the need for a regular maintenance schedule to clean filters in dirty environments as clogged filter will slowly choke a system until it eventually overheats and fails.
Provide adequate space for cooling. Where rack-mounting will help guarantee "plenum" space for hot air to escape, towers or stacked desktops pushed against a wall or in a closet can trap hot air, leading to overheating. Here again, a site survey can help you advise your client and build to the hazard.
Here's a look at an A-Top 4U rack that boasts a frame of heavy-duty steel electroplated with zinc, as well as a front cooling fan with a removable air filter:
Also, consider liquid cooling. Recent advances in this technology have made it more practical in situations where superior cooling is needed or where airborne contaminants or poor airflow render traditional cooling methods impractical. But first, get past the idea of pumping water through your PC! Water conducts heat 30 times quicker than air, and it holds four times more heat. Kits are available for water-cool CPUs, drives, and other components.
Learn about water pumps, radiators and reservoirs at Koolance. For additional cooling fans and strategies, check out Zalman. Along with other cooling accessories, you can find a nifty product call "The Heat Alarm" at PCPowerandCooling that will "sound off" before your PC becomes a molten heap. Though this alarm is theoretically unnecessary for a properly designed PC, it could be perfect for critical applications in hot places.
Power to the PC
Finding clean electrical power in industrial locations can be a challenge. The hazards of large motors, refrigeration equipment, and overloading are all common to the manufacturing floor and all deadly to PCs. At a minimum, always use an external high-quality surge suppressor with RFI (Radio Frequency Interference) filtering, and always insure proper grounding. Choosing a high-quality power supply can pay off here, too, since low-grade power supplies are less tolerant of "dirty" power sources.
PCs that travel need to be prepared for anything. More sophisticated line filters and filters with "line conditioning" to regulate power in a safe range are available in 19-inch rack-mount units. Consider mounting a unit with metering so you will be able to see a hazard before it becomes a problem.
Getting data in and out of a ruggedized PC is another challenge for the system builder. Creative, inexpensive solutions like "type-through" plastic keyboard covers can save keyboards from regular failure due to dirt and other contaminants. Optical mice don't need to be cleaned as often as devices with a rolling track ball. LCD monitors, while compact and cool, can be easily damaged with pencil pointing and poking. Consider protective plastic film -- it's easily replaceable -- for additional protection, or use a traditional glass CRT.
Also, don't overlook the applications. Programming enhancements can reduce the amount of input required. Consider on-screen buttons to reduce keyboard inputting. Bar-coding customer files, parts, processes, and inventory can reduce wear and tear on input devices and save time. Bar-coding is also less prone to error than manual typing.
Location, Location, Location
As in real estate, location can be everything. Given a choice, locate any PC -- or, at least, the CPU -- far from harm's way. Consider using extension keyboards, mice, and video cables to relocate a CPU to a closet or better environment. CAT5 KVM extenders are pricy, but they can take you up to 500 feet away!
The following table shows you some common hazards, and some possible solutions to each:
It's often the little things that prevent big disasters. Attend to these during assembly. For example, treat screws and components with Loctite or silicone caulking compound, and they will stay where you put them. Use this trick if you know a system will be exposed to vibrations. Also, consider extra tie-wraps on cable runs to prevent the excessive wear caused by vibration and chaffing. Use sufficient quantities of a high-quality thermal compound, and provide additional cooling, as mentioned in "Play It Cool" above. Finally, use an extended "burn-in" period in an environment that simulates any unusual conditions to which your machine will be exposed. Avoid the temptation to use a standard burn-in on the workbench. This may mean additional time and trouble mounting your PC in a rack. Or it may mean increasing the room's ambient temperature. This is the only way you will see marginal thermal conditions or air-flow problems.
Technical problems can have more than one acceptable solution. Don't be afraid to look outside the box for the best answer.
Remember, first know what hazards you are protecting against, then build accordingly. Your PCs will punch the clock on time, work steadily without calling in sick, and never get caught smoking on the job.
ANDY MCDONOUGH is a professional musician, composer, voice actor, engineer, and educator happily freelancing in New Jersey.
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