More and more functions are being integrated into industrial PC technology and this multi-functionality creates the urgent need for more individual hardware development and tailor-made software services, so that OEMs can concentrate on developing their own particular application. Embedded computing manufacturers like Kontron are consistently extending their range of OEM development services.
In hardly any other area of industrial technology has so much progress been made than in industrial PC technology. Real-time behavior is – thanks to the boost in performance - no longer an issue. Even the required determinism can be obtained for nearly every application. Thanks to multi-core hardware and virtualization or hypervisors control and visualization can be combined. The range of multi-function solutions is therefore becoming all the more complex. And more networked: Via Ethernet transfer rates of up to 1 Gigabit/s and more are standard. And Wireless LAN performance has increased to up to 450 Mbit/s. And with LTE mobile bandwidth remote services will become available which will enable applications that to date were not possible. This is where the right hardware and software design needs to be tailored, not only for operating OEM systems but for monitoring the hardware so as to supervise the availability of an application.
More individual tailoring
Furthermore, with the integration of FPGAs, like have now first become available in the Intel® Atom™ E6x5 processor series, solutions are possible, which for example with industrial Ethernet or field-buses or special I/Os and algorithms can be flexibly adapted to meet the required I/O and real-time requirements. An attractive solution, for example, for intelligent cameras is also the high level of integration of the AMD Embedded G Series, which combines the CPU and the GPU to a so-called APU (Accelerated Processing Unit). If you want to realize solutions based on these technologies, it often needs hardware customization and extensive software support. Indeed, GPGPU programming is very specific. As is the case with algorithms for imaging, they are offered by specialists or are carried out by the OEMs themselves. But the hardware supplier should be in a position to deal with the FPGA layout in terms of the standard interfaces which the OEM requires, otherwise the development costs for the OEM could explode dramatically. And if, for example, you imagine systems in critical environmental conditions which do not only have to be networked with flexible field-bus or industrial Ethernet interfaces, but also must have I/Os i. e. for hardware monitoring, external triggers etc. so OEMs have to pose themselves the important question of how the individual interfaces are fixed in the housing. A standard board does not suffice. Or perhaps it does?
Correct: A standard board can be designed to accommodate individual interfaces via a feature-connector. And this is even possible with motherboards: Kontron, for example, has carried this out with its new embedded motherboards Kontron KTQ67/Flex in the Flex-ATX form factor and the mini-ITX embedded motherboard Kontron KTQM67/mITX (see photos). This is ideal for applications with special I/O requirements. The implemented embedded feature connector supports up to 160 GPIOs with ADDA converter (analog-digital and digital-analog converter) and PWM (Pulse Width Modulation). With a simple additional customer-specific I/O board, the customer is free to decide how and where the interfaces are placed. Also the definition of the I/O is – thanks to the implemented Intel® 8085 microcontroller- flexibly configurable via software. The standard embedded motherboard itself does not have to be altered. The technology is field-tested. And the availability of the application is on the increase. Development costs are reduced to a minimum. The development and the production of specific I/O boards can be carried out by the customer or by Kontron for the customer. That is what is referred to as an application-ready solution. But what exactly does that mean?
The term application-ready applies to the delivery of an industry PC – whether on board- or on system-level – that the OEM can unpack, build into the system, install the application software and the system is then up and running. Of course, this – in 99 % of cases – cannot be achieved by employing standard components. This is reflected in the fact that over the past few years, in which embedded computer technology has been expanding and become a significant economic factor, a service network of integration providers has developed. The availability of such service providers is extremely important for many small OEMs, but for large OEMs the procedures and costs become too complex with this approach. They need one single contact person who takes on the whole system responsibility. Not just for one group of components, but for the whole application-ready system. This trend is comparable to one seen in the automotive industry. The industry has drastically reduced the number of suppliers and called for platform suppliers. The design effort has thus also been transferred to the suppliers. So it is important that such a supplier can come up with the right resources in order to be able to expertly fulfill the individual needs of each customer.
The need for individualization
For system integrators the term 'application-ready' applies to a finished system. For OEMs it has the same meaning – however in a completely different way. For OEMs namely, it is about the individual customization of the solution. Everything else could otherwise just be bought straight off the shelf (which of course is possible at embedded computing suppliers, as it is with Kontron). But the growing need for more individualization due to the increasing multi-functionality of systems reinforces the need for these individual services. That is a question of both software and hardware. Examples are: fanless designs, implementation of suitable storage media such as SSD or RAID, implementation of remote access or remote management and control, FPGA programming, porting software to new hardware platforms, isolation of interfaces, addressing safety and security aspects with encryption etc. – to name but a few aspects.
Ying & Yang
So which road to go down? COTS platforms or individualization? Hardware or software? The answer is: both. The world is neither black nor white. Only if as many facets as possible are carried out in a standardized fashion it is possible to work cost-efficiently. That not only applies to products but to services. This is why it is advantageous to have a broad base of experience with customers from many applications so as to be able to realize individual cases which require customization as professionally and cost-efficiently as possible. As well as a strong product portfolio, a strong engineering team is required, which is available not only locally but which can operate around the world for OEMs.
Kontron cooperates with Softing for FPGA IP cores
For FPGA-based Real-Time Ethernet solutions Kontron cooperates with Softing Industrial Automation GmbH. Softing IP cores and stacks, for example, for PROFINET, EtherCat, EtherNet/IP and MODBUS TCP can be implemented by Kontron application-ready in the FPGA-based I/O hubs of the new processor boards and Kontron can also take care of any necessary licensing. Customers therefore save valuable time when working on their individual FPGA configurations. Kontron's portfolio of application-ready FPGA platforms currently consists of the PCIe/104™ Singleboard Computer Kontron MICROSPACE® MSMST with Intel® Atom™ E600C series processor and Altera Arria II GX FPGA on a multi-chip module as well as the Kontron COM Express™ FPGA Starterkit with Altera Cyclone IV GX FPGA. Customer-specific designs are also on offer on board- (i. e. motherboards) and system-level (i. e. HMI/Panel PCs and Box PCs). Users profit from the high level of flexibility of the FPGA-based realization of I/Os via FPGAs, which enables upgrades and/or modifications, without having to change the board layout. This means that one and the same hardware platform can be applied in numerous different applications which drastically reduces development time and costs and significantly speeds up time-to-market.