Q&A with Dr. Ron Valli, Director of Engineering, Americas, congatec
VALLI: congatec was incorporated in December of 2004 and currently employs 142 people around the world. Corporate headquarters are located in Deggendorf, Germany. We have subsidiaries in the U.S., Taiwan, Czech Republic, Japan, and Australia, and sales offices in London, Paris, Stockholm, and Tel Aviv. We also have main design centers in Deggendorf, Germany; Plzen and Brno, Czech Republic; and Boca Raton, Florida.
congatec supplies industrial COMs using the standard form factors Qseven, COM Express, XTX, and ETX. Our products can be used in a variety of industries and applications, such as industrial automation, medical technology, military, aerospace, transportation, test and measurement, and communications. Core knowledge focuses on unique extended BIOS features as well as comprehensive driver and board support packages. Following the design-in phase, customers are given product lifecycle management support. Our 2012 corporate-wide revenue was $80M.
Why did you choose to design COM-based products versus another small form factor architecture?
VALLI: When compared to monolithic processor boards, COMs are the typical first choice when the platform requires special hardware functions. These functions can be dedicated interfaces and interface location, special power supplies, or simply a special mechanical shape to properly fit the final system design. Special requirements like these can only be matched by creating a ground-up custom design or by utilizing a semi-custom design that includes a COM for the standard PC functions and a custom carrier board to address the special required functions. In most cases, a full custom design does not make sense when you take into account the time and money needed to complete it. A COM can reduce the amount of time from roughly 12 to 18 months down to 6 months. This obviously saves a lot of development dollars as well. That being said, there is a threshold where a custom design does not make sense. That threshold often tends to be around 50,000 units per year.
We focus on COM form factors because they lend themselves to becoming candidates in many more applications and opportunities than simpler, high-volume monolithic boards. There is more engineer-to-engineer interfacing happening overall when a COM is being deployed in an OEM product. This allows for a tighter partnership between supplier and customer and removes a certain degree of “commodity effect” from the product.
How do COMs match up to other form factors when it comes to achieving the reliability needed for industrial automation?
VALLI: COMs are designed and tested for extreme environments. Most Mini-ITX boards are designed for friendly environment office applications and are never tested for shock, vibration, or extended temperatures. Most motherboards are commodity-based solutions that do not emphasize lifecycle management and a focus on industrial computing. COM designs offer availablity of a minimum of seven years. Component selection is focused on this as well as the industrial nature of the COM. The quality of the design is certainly more industrial. We test every new COM to temperature extremes, which are much broader than standard operating temperature ranges. We have a number of modules that operate in the -40 ˚C to +85 ˚C range, which makes them suitable candidates for the harshest of operating environments.
Ultimately, the best industrial automation system needs to be based on the best components utilized with the best practices. COMs are industry standards that are focused on industrial environments, long lifecycles, and minimal changes. All of these attributes contribute to reliability for the OEM.
How does congatec assure reliability for its industrial spec-rated COMs?
VALLI: congatec leverages the claims and specifications from silicon providers as its starting point for rating the operating temperatures of its modules. When an extended-temperature-range silicon platform is offered by the likes of Intel, Freescale, AMD, etc., we take steps to ensure that its COM offering operates in the same environment range.
A common definition of extended temperature range is -40 ˚C to +85 ˚C. When this is the case, we use a PCB that is designed for this range and all populated components are specified to meet or exceed that temperature range. Our design verification testing takes the operating temperatures beyond this range. The tests are performed at both tolerances of the specified supply voltages (this is 11.4 V and 12.6 V for COM Express modules) during a full functional test of all available interfaces.
In addition, we focus heavily on offering innovative cooling solutions for our COM products. One example is a patented heat-pipe cooling solution that utilizes flat, fluid-filled pipes within the cooling solution. This design significantly helps to improve the heat dissipation from the module and reduces the chance of any shutdowns or clockdowns in the silicon due to overheating. Lab tests comparing a classic cooling approach (phase change foil + copper block + gap filler + heat spreader) to the congatec patented heat-pipe based solution (phase change foil + copper block + flat heat pipe + heat spreader) showed a temperature improvement of 14 °C. Taking into account the 5 °C improved die temperature can double the MTBF of a silicon component. The change to heat-pipe based cooling can improve the MTBF – a measure of reliability – up to 8x.
How have the technical demands increased for COMs used in industrial automation in the past five years?
VALLI: There have been a number of distinct technical improvements that have occurred, or at least begun to be taken advantage of, in the past five years or so. For one, we now have multicore silicon found on the long-term embedded road maps from silicon providers. Many applications in the embedded space, including industrial automation, are taking advantage here and writing new code for optimization. AMD has been offering Accelerated Processing Units (APUs) whereby designers can take the General-Purpose Graphics Processor Units (GPGPUs) and use them as a CPU. With the proper coding, this changes the game for what can be done with less, especially when you think of less as lower power, smaller size, and lower cost.
Industrial automation systems are more highly connected and more sophisticated than ever before. PLCs and HMIs have historically consisted of separate boxes, connected by a communication interface – typically Ethernet or a real-time capable implementation of Ethernet. With today’s multicore technologies it’s more common to use virtualization for industrial automation solutions. One set of hardware is enough. PLC and HMI systems are both operated by one CPU. Using real-time virtualization, one core of the chip is completely isolated to run the PLC based on a real-time operating system. Some of the other cores (typically two) are allocated for the Windows- or Linux-based HMI. The remaining fourth core from a quad-core CPU is used as a firewall to ensure data security. All of this does not require a rewrite to existing software because the use of multicore is controlled by the real-time hypervisor, which partitions the CPUs and also the attached I/Os to aviod conflicts between the different operating systems. Communication between the separated applications happens – as in the past – by virtual Ethernet ports.
How will industrial COMs need to evolve in the coming five years?
VALLI: A continued increase in connectivity is the first thing that comes to mind. Most of us have heard of the “Internet of Things” and “intelligent systems.” This means that industrial automation systems will become more and more intelligent and capable. Just think of the trajectory that something like the connected home is on. That trajectory of the technology is evident in many vertical markets for embedded computers today. In order for COMs to keep up, they will need to evolve with the I/O and buses being developed and implemented by the silicon providers. It is standard today to see 8 USB ports supported by COM Express modules. That is not something that was relevant 10 years ago. In addition, security features such as the Trusted Platform Module (TPM) will continue to be more important for COM users.
What are the challenges your industrial automation customers are facing now? How are you meeting these challenges?
VALLI: On the technical side it is often power draw and physical size. If you look today, one of the smallest proven COM form factors is Qseven. At 70 mm x 70 mm it is quite small. There was recently an update to the Qseven specification that calls out a version that is 40 mm x 70 mm. Today this form factor is small, but as silicon continues to get smaller and more integrated, we will continue to see a drive to make smaller COMs. This parallels what a number of industrial automation companies are experiencing. They want small form factors at the system level, that draw as low an amount of power as possible and are as inexpensive as possible.
For COMs suppliers the challenge is always to create the most power-efficient solution. This is not just selecting the best CPUs; it also requires a careful design of the required DC/DC converters. Saving power consumption lowers the cost of ownership for industrial machines by saving electricity. Even a few watts can make a difference in the long term to the overall cost of the system. Add in the fact that some devices are battery driven and the hairs are split even further.