Zeljko Loncaric looks at the productivity gains from using industrial tablet PCs or mobile displays and how it can transfer into hard cash.
Since their introduction in 2010, tablets have irrevocably changed our digital lives and ushered in the era of ‘surround computing’. Ready to use, light, handy and intuitive, they often eliminate the need for a traditional desktop. They can be used away from the desk to complete tasks on the fly, from wherever one happens to be: in the evening, sitting on the sofa, you can check what’s on TV, program the digital video recorder directly, or stream music, videos and photos. In the morning, at breakfast, you can read the latest news, check email and get the latest traffic update. Cloud services provided, all your data is always up to date on all devices. Even though the gain in productivity may rank behind convenience and the ‘fun factor’ in private use, tablets make our lives much more enjoyable and effective.
In the industrial sector, the benefits of mobile access to information and control coupled with high system inherent usability are also highly desirable. Here, the productivity gain from using tablet PCs or mobile displays also transfers into hard cash.
Consumer tablets are rarely suitable for industrial use where they are often exposed to harsh environmental conditions. For example, temperatures on the manufacturing floor during machine maintenance lie often outside the comfort zone. The mobile devices also need to feature higher stress resistance; in industrial applications, they are more likely to hit concrete instead of a soft sofa cushion when dropped. In medical environments, the devices need to be disinfected regularly to stop the spreading of disease. In addition, better configurability is required to integrate specific interfaces such as CAN bus for automotive applications or wireless fieldbus I/Os for industrial applications from the outset. The higher requirements affect the overall design of the devices. At the same time, the systems must be just as handy and efficient as their private, commercial counterparts.
In addition, industrial units are often used 24/7 for many years. The need for long-term availability of seven years or more is not uncommon. For one thing, this makes maintenance more efficient, as there is no need to service and administer three or four different device generations.
Yet production runs are significantly lower than the millions of devices that are sold per generation in the consumer market. From an economic point of view, time-consuming full-custom designs are therefore generally out of the question. OEMs that want to bring their own tablets or mobile HMIs to market quickly require more highly integrated platforms for their own designs. This applies both to the processor, for smaller and more energy-efficient devices, and the underlying form factors. The more features that are pre-integrated, the less development effort is required.
Highly integrated SOCs
AMD has developed the new Embedded G-Series SOCs specifically for power-, graphic-, and cost-sensitive small form factor designs. They are available as dual- and quad-core versions and are based on the new Jaguar CPU core with 28 nm manufacturing technology and the AMD Radeon GPU of the 8000 series. They can process more instructions per clock cycle, which is also reflected in the execution of various compute-intensive industry standard benchmarks: Compared to the Intel Atom, the AMD G-Series SOCs show a 125 per cent improvement in CPU performance.
What is most important for mobile HMIs and tablet PCs is their graphics and multimedia performance. Here, the new AMD G-Series SOCs provide up to 20 per cent more performance than the previous generation and a five-fold improvement over the Intel Atom. Thanks to an improved Universal Video Decoder there are also new opportunities for hardware-based video encoding. In addition, AMD has improved the clock gating and extended it to the multimedia engine so as to reduce power draw. The C6 ‘deep power down’ feature is now also available on the multimedia engine, and the computer requires less than a millisecond to switch from sleep mode to full processing power. This is ideal for the intermittent usage profile of tablets that switch to sleep mode when not used.
The low power requirements of the new SOCs enables fully enclosed, fanless designs with a long battery life.
How can OEMs integrate these processors as efficiently as possible in their own tablet and mobile HMI designs, without having to develop everything from scratch? The ideal solution is a modular approach where fully developed components are purchased. This allows the combination of individual function blocks, such as processor unit, external interfaces and power or battery supply, into a customised solution. For this, the ideal core component is an extremely compact, standardised Computer-on-Module (COM).
The COM concept enables the development of interoperable, interchangeable and upgradeable hardware. It is ideal for the integration of SOCs in industrial tablet PCs.
To bring the benefits of modular computer technology to these applications, it is important to consider the user expectation alongside the technical requirements. While modular computers fulfil even the highest technical demands due to their inherent flexibility and high performance, the ease with which a customized system can be developed by simple carrier board modification is an advantage not to be overlooked.
The key parameters that influence the objectives of the COM concept are governed by industry-wide, internationally recognised standards. Such standardisation offers equal advantages to the COM provider - such as congatec, a member of the COM Express Alliance, founder of the Qseven Technology Alliance and editor of the PICMG - and the manufacturers of industrial devices while providing a roadmap for future performance improvements. A recent example of how the COM community reacts to new requirements and accommodates new technologies is the development of the Qseven COM form factor. Qseven is designed as a cost-effective standard for low-power mobile platforms.
Tablet PC demonstrator
With its tablet PC demonstrator, congatec has illustrated how quick and easy it is to utilize the COM approach to develop an industrial tablet PC. The demonstrator consists entirely of standard components and includes a compact carrier board, an AMD GX-Series SOC Qseven module, a congatec SMART battery board, as well as an intelligent touch screen. Since the demonstrator is designed for practical use, an operating system was ported and a mechanical housing was designed.
This then had to be integrated into the COM approach to enable easy and cost-effective customer modifications by simple carrier board upgrades. This approach showed that the COM concept can be successfully applied in the design of mobile devices, while simultaneously reducing the design complexity and the risk of missing a time-to-market window.
conga-QG with AMD G-Series SOC on Qseven
Currently congatec offers three processors of the AMD Embedded G-Series SOC platform on Qseven: the AMD GX-210HA 1.0 GHz Dual Core (L2 cache, 1MB shared) with a thermal design power (TDP) of just 9W; and the AMD GX‑210JA 1.0 GHz Dual Core (L2 cache, 1MB shared) with a TDP of 6W and an expected average consumption of 3W. For extreme environmental conditions, the module is also available for an extended temperature range featuring the AMD GX-209HA 1.0 GHz Dual Core (L2 cache, 1MB shared).
ECC (Error Correction Code) memory support makes the module particularly suitable for applications containing safety-critical situations. It can optionally be fitted with up to 8GB of ECC DDR3L memory chips. Any memory errors, produced for example by radiation in medical applications, can be automatically corrected so as to ensure safe operation.
The integrated AMD Radeon graphics with the Universal Video Decoder 4.2 for seamless processing of BluRays with HDCP (1080p), MPEG-2, HD and DivX (MPEG-4) videos supports DirectX 11.1 and OpenGL 4.0 for fast 2D and 3D image display as well as OpenCL 1.1. Developers using these standardised computing frameworks do not just gain access to a variety of powerful tools, they also benefit from longer life cycles of their applications, since these are based on a standardised and compatible framework. This results in lower software development costs and an improved return on investment.
VGA, single/dual channel LVDS 18/24Bit as well as DisplayPort 1.2 and DVI/HDMI 1.4a graphic interfaces are available for the direct control of two independent displays. DisplayPort 1.2 also supports multi-streaming, so that it is possible to drive up to two displays per graphics port in daisy-chain mode.
Four PCI Express x1 lanes Generation 2, one USB 3.0 port, five USB 2.0 ports, two SATA 3 Gb/s ports plus a Gigabit Ethernet interface allow flexible system expansion at high data bandwidths. The congatec board controller, ACPI 3.0 CPU power management and high-definition audio complete the feature set.
To get started immediately with the development and rapid prototyping of battery-powered embedded systems, an AMD G-Series Qseven Mobility Kit is provided. This includes a Qseven module, a compact Qseven carrier board, a 7-in LVDS single touch screen with LED backlight plus a battery manager module including smart batteries and a cable set.
Zeljko Loncaric is Marketing Engineer at congatec AG in Deggendorf, Germany.