System Host Boards maintain presence in industrial automation as factory floors advance

System Host Boards (SHBs) provide scalability to keep pace with rapidly changing industrial environments.

2Industrial automation is at the heart of the global manufacturing community, with leading companies facing enormous pressure to automate and integrate processes for maximum output, improved cost efficiencies, and tangible competitive value. As industrial computing evolves to embrace enterprise-level automation, embedded system designers are challenged by the environmental rigors of manufacturing deployments, as well as the need to provide connected, fault-free performance on the factory floor. Today's standards-based System Host Boards (SHBs) benefit from continued improvements in mechanical engineering and performance-to-power capabilities in the latest generation Intel Core processors in order to provide a viable solution for applications in motion control, machine vision, and automation.

Today we’ve entered an era of intelligent systems with networked equipment collecting massive amounts of data in order to fully understand and optimize process interactions. This connected environment enables full factory automation, with acquired data available to analyze efficiencies and look for patterns to implement predictive operations. These intelligent industrial systems rely on embedded platforms that continue to decrease in size while increasing in performance.

While processing power requirements heighten, lower power consumption and thermal output is expected. Include additional rugged requirements to accommodate the shock, vibration, humidity, and temperature extremes of a factory environment, and system designers are faced with a considerable challenge.

Standards-based embedded design

A significant amount of effort is being made to move to high-speed switched interconnects like PCI Express (PCIe). The reality is that many embedded and industrial control applications that exist today and in the future can be served by standards-based compute solutions available now. In looking to architect next-generation applications, engineers should not forget about these market-tested and time-proven compute solutions.

The PICMG 1.3 standard, System Host Board (SHB) Express, is a Single Board Computer (SBC) specification designed to interface with PCIe peripherals on a backplane. The SHB Express PCIe interconnects with the backplane can operate at x1, x4, x8, x16, and others depending on the capabilities of both the SHB and the backplane.

Reliability and longevity requirements for the factory floor

Automated, industrial solutions are made up of many moving parts. In addition, as is the case for wafer cutting or electronics assembly, enclosed environments are required to prevent contamination. However, all of these moving parts require computing power, and that computing power generates heat. These moving parts also generate vibration and can run 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Upon initial analysis, an SHB might not be a top choice for rugged application deployment. SHBs are not inherently rugged like a motherboard and generally have large CPUs with massive heatsinks that generate significant heat. However, more sophisticated CPU coolers and Thermal Design Power (TDP) improvements in processor generations have helped to lower heat output from SHBs. The 4th generation Intel Core processor family has shown up to 13 percent CPU performance improvements and 12 W TDP reduction compared to its predecessor. In addition, SHBs are secured within enclosures to limit vibration. There are two typical enclosures widely adopted in industrial sites: a wallmount enclosure, which is similar to a generic desktop PC in terms of size; and a rackmount enclosure, which provides a standard mounting method with lower hardware costs, as users can source related COTS components to easily build up the system.

A few more important reasons to consider deploying SHB-based platforms in industrial environments are shorter Mean Time To Repair (MTTR), ease of deployment, and scalability. Industrial automation applications generally include extremely long deployment cycles, so simple fixes and upgrades are critical features for system longevity. In the unlikely event of a system crash, simply remove the failed SHB, replace it with another, and be up and running with minimal downtime; no need to pull I/O cards, unplug cables, re-image hard drives, and so on. Such a simple fix does not exist with a failed motherboard, which could have a system down for days.

In addition, machine makers are generally under time pressure with limited resources available to deploy their series of machines. For the machine maker, the critical piece of their system is the application-specific software effort, which requires building a dedicated Operating System (OS) image with corresponding add-on card drivers and Board Support Packages (BSPs), and fine-tuning the software. By using a standards-based PICMG system, machine makers can shorten their development cycle and leverage fewer engineers by choosing a single SHB and integrating it into several different chassis, backplanes, or add-on card combinations that share the same OS image (including software); this allows them to expand their product line in a short time.

Dynamic power management, core by core

Power-saving features on the 4th generation Intel Core processors have been refreshed from the ground up, with Intel considering silicon enhancements at logic and process levels; IP block modularity, variable cache, and a range of graphics subsystems; and system-level power management including both hardware and software elements. In doing so, Intel has effectively reduced processor power consumption in idle mode, while also substantially improving transition times from idle to active mode.

The 4th generation Intel Core processor improves existing C-states and adds new, deeper C-states, further speeding the transition from one to the other by up to 25 percent. The latest Core processor’s newly defined S0xi state is of particular value to embedded applications, reducing idle mode processor power consumption by 20x compared to earlier processor generations, with no performance drawbacks during transition into active mode.

The 4th generation Intel Core processor architecture further includes Intel Turbo Boost Technology 2.0, a series of algorithms that consistently manage current, power, and temperature to ensure maximum performance and energy efficiency. Active power is reduced, as Turbo Boost automatically enables individual processor cores to run faster than base operating frequencies, as long as they are operating below power, current, and temperature specification limits.

This dynamic increase in performance of individual cores is an important first in power management, and is unique to 4th generation Intel Core processors; the increase is activated when the system’s OS requests the highest processor performance state (P0). The amount of time the processor spends in Turbo Boost mode depends simply on the workload and operating environment.

For maximum performance, Intel Turbo Boost Technology 2.0 allows the processor to operate at power levels higher than its rated upper TDP limit for short durations, overclocking as needed in order to complete more processing quickly. Applications run faster through intelligent use of available thermal headroom for the system to run at higher frequencies. Intel Hyper-Threading Technology works in conjunction with Turbo Boost, delivering two processing threads per physical core, allowing more work done in parallel. Automated power management increases energy efficiency, and further enables low-power states to adjust system power based on real-time processor loads.

Low-power revolution

The 4th generation Intel Core processor family features a one-chip U-series (Ultra Low Power) processor with a 15-watt TDP. U-Series products integrate both CPU and Platform Controller Hub (PCH) in a smaller package, bundling higher performance processing into a smaller chip package and enabling smaller form factors in compute-intensive industrial control applications.

Improved performance in a small footprint supports equipment manufacturers in addressing new industrial environments and reducing space requirements on the factory floor. The 4th generation Intel Core processors also incorporate greater scaling of voltage and frequency, which reduces core voltage in proportion to the CPU’s clock speed. Lower voltage results in lower current, which in turn ensures significantly lower power consumption and requirements for heat dissipation. Coupled with gating techniques – where unused cores are switched on and off as needed to handle processing loads – scaled voltage plays a key role in the 4th generation Intel Core processors’ proven low power consumption.

Parallel processing improvements enable speed

Automation, motion control, and machine vision applications require multi-tasking capabilities, high computing power, and high-speed data transfer rates. Today’s SHBs have the advantage of Intel’s latest processor-line enhancements. The 4th generation Intel Core platform incorporates an upgrade to the Intel Advanced Vector Extensions (Intel AVX) instruction set that improves integer/matrix-based calculation abilities, including wider vectors, new extensible syntax, and rich functionality. By fusing multiply and add functions, AVX 2.0 advances the original AVX instruction set handling Single Instruction, Multiple Data (SIMD) parallel processing functions to provide twice the floating-point performance for multiply-add workloads, 256-bit integer SIMD operations, in contrast to previous 128-bit gather operations and bit manipulation instructions. Other support integrated into AVX 2.0 simplifies code vectorization, enabling vector elements to load from noncontiguous memory locations. As a result, the latest Core processing engine is fed very effectively, as system tasks that previously required two clock cycles can now be completed in a single clock cycle. This level of performance enhances industrial imaging applications that require increased vectorization.

AVX 2.0 also drives better management of data and general-purpose industrial applications, optimizing demanding processing environments such as 3D modeling, imaging or analysis, or scientific simulations. For example, faster calculations enable rapid and accurate machine vision on an industrial line.

New generation PICMG 1.3 SBCs

Multiple vendors offer SHBs that take advantage of the new performance and power enhancements offered by 4th generation Intel Core processors. ADLINK’s NuPRO-E42 is one example (Figure 1). Developed as a ready-made solution, its aim is to offer a High-Performance Computing (HPC) platform for automation applications, including those used in Printed Circuit Board (PCB), Light-Emitting Diode (LED), and semiconductor fabrication plants, as well as those used by solar, printing, Surface-Mount Technology (SMT), and laser cutting service providers (see sidebar “SHB focus on motion control”). These applications require powerful embedded computing products with PCI Express (PCIe) for frame grabbing and PCI expansion options for motion capture and I/O ports.

Figure 1: ADLINK Technology NuPRO-E42 System Host Board (SHB) is based on 4th generation Intel Core U series processors and the Intel Q87 Express chipset to provide multitasking capabilities and high-speed data transfer rates.

Sidebar 1: SHB focus on motion control: Laser processing and printing.

As industrial automation applications further embrace the integration of processes and the connection to the ever-present Internet of Things (IoT) concept, the need for intelligent, embedded computing platforms with high-speed interface support and extensive expansion capabilities will only increase. The answer to the industrial computing challenges faced by system designers is in scalable technology platforms that optimize operations while enabling a long-term vision of sustainable, integrated manufacturing.

Bruce Tsai is Product Manager, PICMG 1.3 Systems, at ADLINK Technology, Inc.

ADLINK Technology, Inc.