When I was still a student, I earned some money working for system administration of a computer network. It was a nice and not to stressful job. Using Novell (does anyone of you remember?) and the remote console you could sit in the sun and enjoy your job. But from time to time when the main server needed to be rebooted I got used to the error message: “No keyboard found: Press F1” because something went wrong. So I often sat in the computer room of the clinic basement looking for who the hell “borrowed” my keyboard from the server. From that time on, the message haunted me. For example when I used a PanelPC with touch screen and flat panel and when I did my first test run – guess what: “No keyboard found: Press F1” (the BIOS might work with a mouse, but not with the touch).
Make the system simply work
When I transferred to working on industrial computers I was surprised that these effects are still there. Even so the computer system tends to be only a very small part of the installation and is neglect able in costs (e. g. 5 million € for a TBM using 4 computers for 1500€ each) – if it fails, the entire work stops. So over the years, looking on our customers and the repairs to do, we identified some main discrepancies between using the personal computer concept and the requirements in industrial environments. With our new ‘Wartungsfrei’ (Maintenance-free) concept we exactly address that lack.
Hard to handle: Industrial environments
Coming from a medical background in my family and electronics in my job, visiting a real production was a bit of a shock to me. Dust is not only dirty and unpleasant; it might also be conductive (metal dust). Not to forget the “ground” might significantly move while staying close to a die cutter or inside a TBM. In this dust, fans suckings on the production floor are really not such an intelligent idea. What I also learned there: filters are a great idea, but after their first cleaning, they are mostly left out to avoid cleaning in future. And getting dust and vibration to a rotating hard disk is not the best way to make it work for a long time. Simply as it is: the best way to MAKE it work for a long time, is to avoid any moving parts like hard disks or fans.
Low power components are the clue to reliable fan less system
When I started to work at Kontron a typical desktop computer CPU was the 80386 and I was so proud to do one of our first 80486 designs. At this time heat dissipation was not a big topic: 15W including memory and hard disk. No one really cared. Going for todays desktop CPU and system you easily end up at 200W for a high end system. At least I have no clue how to cool this without a fan. So if you want to go fan less you definitely need to consider other solutions.
Find solutions to avoid consumable parts
Even today most commercial computer systems will not boot by default if the CMOS battery is dead after 5 years in a high temperature environment. At Kontron we did several improvements to the BIOS (EFI) and could store all needed configuration date even without the battery. Since most Windows version won’t boot or loose the activation once the date or time looks wrong, we also needed to modify the OS images to still boot and obtain a correct time setting from the network. So we got rid of any error because of an empty battery. But still people use a battery. This is quite surprising, since the only function really relays on it today is the RTC supplying date and time to the BIOS. Most systems today are connected to a network and therefore your operations system by default obtains the time from a time server.
Robust power supply is key
One of my first bigger projects was a control system for a robot doing welding. There I learned my next lesson: Power is not to feature simply available on the wall outlet. Brown outs and ground bounces are terms I got familiar with while welding cars. Using normal PC type power supply was a hassle even so the supplier claims they are fit for those environments. Systems showed strange behavior or suddenly rebooted. What you really need here is a dedicated power supply able to withstand industrial environment.
As you can see, our Wartungsfrei is a great extension of the personal computer you use at home. It contains solutions for the hassles that customers had to face all the time.
IBM defined the PC more than 30 years and now we add what was missing all the time for our applications.
At Kontron we did a whitepaper dedicated to this topic. I really hope you find the time to dig into that document. I would also love to see your proposals what to add to our ‘Wartungsfrei’ definition!