Embedded Computer
Differences between commercial and industrial computers from the design and component perspective Oct 25, 2022

There are significant differences between industrial computers and commercial computers. Many of the differences are related to its ability to operate continuously in harsh environments that can lead to detrimental failures. For example, industrial computers are mechanically robust and feature fanless and cableless designs. These key design features are specifically engineered into industrial computers to ensure durability, reliability and longevity when exposed to the harshest environments susceptible to water, dust, extreme temperatures, shock and vibration.


Design and Components


1. Fanless vs. Fan Cooling

Industrial computers are known for their unique fanless designs. Industrial embedded computers do not use actively rotating fans for fan cooling, but instead utilize heat sinks and heat pipes to dissipate heat from the hottest part of the computer (CPU) to the outside of the computer. This is a very simple and effective way to remove heat from critical components to keep your computer running. In contrast, many commercial computers use an active cooling method fan-cooled transformers to dissipate heat, which is not suitable for industrial applications.


2. Wireless vs Wired

Industrial computers eliminate the use of cables to reduce the possibility of loose cables in connections, to withstand external interruptions and to burn cables. Instead, they maximized the use of hot-swappable expansion cards to connect each component. And with commercial computers, they tend to stay in a controlled environment because of their wired computer components.


3. Industrial grade versus commercial grade components

Industrial computers are constructed from tested industrial-grade materials to ensure durability and reliability when deployed in harsh environments. Unlike commercial computers, which are not designed to survive harsh environments, industrial computers use high-quality components that are tested and can withstand a wide range of operating temperatures. For example, industrial-grade computer cases are made of extruded heavy-duty metal to meet tough industrial challenges such as shock and vibration. In contrast, the chassis of business computers are often made of thin aluminum and acrylic plastic to keep costs down.


Robustness and reliability

1. Shock and Vibration

Industrial applications such as robotic automation and mining processes often experience high levels of shock and vibration. Therefore, industrial computers are designed to limit potential failures caused by shock and vibration. To ensure reliability under these conditions, good industrial computers eliminate points of failure by adopting a fanless design and using an all-in-one chassis. The housing has a one-piece design to avoid extra joints and screws. These industrial-grade design techniques provide a robust structure that is even qualified for MIL-STD-810G shock and vibration, which indicates the computer's ability to be used in specific military applications.


On the other hand, a business computer consists of many moving parts, such as cables, fans, and hard drives. The outer chassis is made of aluminum metal and acrylic plastic, which cannot withstand high-intensity shock and vibration. In fact, many aspects of business computers are not suitable for shock and vibration due to common failure points.


2. IP (ingress protection) rating

The key to a robust and reliable industrial computer is to eliminate multiple failures, especially those caused by the elements of dust and water. Many industrial applications require computers to operate in extremely dirty and waterlogged environments; for example, automated equipment in food processing requires routine hygienic flushing using high-powered jets with special chemicals. Therefore, the industrial computer has an IP protection level from the appearance design (all-in-one chassis), fanless cooling, and even the special connector (M12) for dust and water resistance. The M12 connector is a dustproof and waterproof connector with a built-in lock to secure the cable to the computer. At the same time, IP ratings are often not required for commercial computers and their use cases. But since most business computers are used indoors and in dry office spaces, IP protection is not required.


3. Extreme temperature

As mentioned earlier, industrial computers use heat sinks and heat pipes rather than fans to efficiently dissipate heat. It is also assembled from highly durable industrial-grade components that can withstand higher temperatures from –40⁰C to 85⁰C, enabling operation in extreme cold and extreme heat.


Business computers with active cooling fans can only withstand temperatures of 0 –35⁰C. Heat is a disadvantage for computing electronics because it can damage mission-critical components such as CPU, memory, and storage if not properly cooled. Therefore, active fans are a popular cooling solution for business computers to remove heat from the system itself.


4. Electromagnetic Interference (EMI)

Electromagnetic interference is a phenomenon in which an electromagnetic field interferes with another electromagnetic field in the same radio frequency (RF) range. EMI can cause a circuit to degrade and possibly even make it non-functional. Industrial computer design ensures complete isolation and prevents radiation from penetrating the computer. Compliance standards such as the FCC and EC are common practices for ensuring EMI safety and compatibility. Both industrial and commercial computers must meet EMI compliance and safety regulations for use in a variety of applications.


5. Wide power range

The IPC Power Supply unit (PSU) design of the industrial computer is completely fanless, cableless, and wide voltage protection. The wide power range allows an input range of 9V to 48V and is equipped with overvoltage protection (OVP) to prevent inputs exceeding 55V and overcurrent protection (OCP) to prevent inrush current from damaging the system. However, business PC power supplies use active cooling fans and cables, causing dust and grime to clog the system. A damaged PSU can catch fire from overheating and voltage fluctuations, causing permanent damage to computer components.


6. Expansion capability, abundant I/O ports Limited I/O ports

Industrial computers are capable of managing various data inputs, transmitting data for real-time decision-making. Additionally, industrial computers offer a wide range of input or output ports for their scalability and ability to meet industrial workloads. For example, there are serial ports, USB, PoE LAN, video ports, DIO/GPIO, M12 ports, and more. I/O flexibility is a key requirement for many industrial computing deployments that rely on analog and digital connectivity. In contrast, commodity computers are limited in terms of I/O, but generally offer the latest I/O ports for optimal performance.


When reliability matters, choose an industrial computer


Industrial computers support embedded applications and can be used for 5 to 7 years due to their long design life. Overall, industrial computers are designed for ultimate reliability and long-term use without any interruptions. As for business computers, they are designed based on current trends with performance as their specification requirements. This is why most commercial computers can be upgraded to the latest technology relatively quickly.

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