Asset tracking: How industrial computers get the job done

COMs help manage the intense information processing requirements of forklift-mounted computers used in warehouse and manufacturing applications.

3Rugged computers go directly into equipment like forklifts, automating previously manual tracking tasks and improving speed, accuracy, and more. But not just any computer can step onto a forklift and survive the wear and tear. This look at a rugged machine based on COMs shows how one can.

There is a whole new world evolving in food manufacturing. The factory floor and warehouse used to comprise multiple and disconnected silos where materials were received and transferred to the manufacturing area by one group, used in the manufacturing process by another, while yet another team was responsible for shipping and distribution – all working separately from management and the rest of the company. This is no longer the case. Along with the separate departments came individual goals that might not have been in sync with the overall goals of the company in terms of asset management. Today, all these separate operational departments can be connected via enterprise-wide software systems and networks integrated into rugged industrial computers.

Integral in keeping the industrial machine humming is the use of forklifts. Essential pieces of machinery for any factory, forklifts act as the transportation corridor within the manufacturing facility and the entire material handling operation. That is why manufacturers have begun to install ruggedized computers so these workhorses can do multiple duties.

Industrial computers mounted on forklifts now handle a wide range of asset tracking tasks using barcodes and RFID tags, enabling them to run applications that include everything from receiving inventory, filling orders, and moving freight to monitoring time and attendance or as HIDs on industrial equipment such as press brakes. In the past, this sort of asset tracking was labor-intensive and disruptive to normal operations. Using forklifts that can employ new technology tools for an automated solution can reduce the time and staffpower required to track and provide improved asset visibility. However, requirements for computers present additional challenges in industrial operations, especially one mounted on a forklift (shown in Figure 1).

Figure 1: Manufacturing companies are installing ruggedized computers on forklifts to handle asset tracking.
(Click graphic to zoom by 1.9x)

In the 24/7 working environment of a manufacturing facility, these systems must deliver high availability and high reliability. Anything that affects the efficiency and productivity also affects costs and ultimately profitability. Furthermore, forklifts run in very harsh conditions that include wide temperature extremes from the loading dock to the factory floor, and computers must endure almost constant movement, shock, and vibration from the forklift. Also, due to forklift operators’ varying levels of computer skills, the computers must be simple to use. And, because accidents can happen, industrial computer systems must be extra rugged and offer ease of installation or repair. New ruggedized, sealed computers tested and proven in harsh conditions can satisfy these demands as well as offer the benefit of mobility and ease of installation.

Case study: demands on industrial computers

One company that understands the strict operating requirements for forklift-mounted computers is Glacier Computer. Glacier Computer is a leading manufacturer and distributor of rugged industrial computers. The company designs, markets, and supports industrial computer systems for a wide range of applications.

Glacier’s new line of Everest industrial computers is optimized to suit varying tasks within warehouse and manufacturing plant operations. Glacier knew that its Everest line had to not only meet rugged system requirements, but also give manufacturers the scalability and flexibility afforded by a small form factor, standards-based approach.

Satisfying multiple operational requirements would allow Everest to be used as an all-in-one industrial computer for forklift and fixed-mount harsh environment applications. This meant that the computer needed to support forklifts that operate in -20 °F freezers as well as in loading docks where temperatures can vary by more than 80 to 100 degrees. High reliability is crucial, so the computers needed to operate without fail with constant usage and excessive levels of vibration, in many cases 24 hours a day. And, because manufacturers are pressured to squeeze every bit of profit they can from the entire organization, adding computers could not put a strain on the customer’s capital equipment budget.

Selecting the right embedded solution

In its evaluation process, Glacier reviewed small form factor modules that would allow the company to meet its portability and mobility objectives as well as help speed time to market and further optimize the design for demanding environments such as warehouses, construction sites, and manufacturing centers. Glacier sought a standards-based platform that would withstand its customers’ main environmental concerns of wide temperature extremes as well as excessive shock and vibration conditions. The designers at Glacier Computers knew that a high-performance, extended-temperature embedded computing solution was required.

Customer requirements in the food manufacturing industry include the need to utilize a rugged, forklift-mounted industrial computer to run a newly purchased, costly inventory and financial software package. The objective of the new system was to automate the company’s manual data collection process to feed real-time data from the manufacturing floor into the new system.

Providing a viable industrial computing platform would enable the food processing manufacturer to achieve timely data evaluation that would reduce reporting errors, improve efficiency with real-time inventory updates, and eliminate shipping errors, allowing the company to better serve its customers and improve its bottom line.

COMs are up to the task

For the Glacier Everest computer line, a Computer-On-Module (COM) was selected due to the high performance it delivered at very low power. Based on the energy-saving Intel Atom N270 processor, the Kontron ETX-DC gave Glacier reduced power consumption with efficient thermal management characteristics. This COM requires a maximum of 12 to 15 W to run the processor, controller, I/O, and specific application features.

COMs are a flexible solution that can facilitate software and operating system development. Enabling application-specific customization, a diverse set of drivers are available for COMs that support standard x86 architectures, making it easy to adapt software to particular needs. With nothing proprietary, developers can easily leverage existing and well-known processor architectures to maximize bandwidth and support an expanded feature set.

Giving Glacier a scalable standards-based computing platform, ETX modules (like the ETX-DC shown in Figure 2) are similar to components and can be plugged into an application-specific carrier board. These modules support standardized interfaces such as USB and offer scalability and interchangeability to speed development. Utilizing a COM platform provided a comprehensive solution, as Glacier did not need to add extra computing hardware.

Figure 2: The Kontron ETX-DC module offers the next-generation processor technology in the well-established ETX 3.0 form factor.
(Click graphic to zoom by 1.2x)

Because the Glacier Everest computer design is sealed and cannot utilize fans or venting holes to cool the processor, the ETX-DC is a good platform for fanless designs in harsh environments that require passive cooling. The ETX-DC module also met Glacier’s high Mean Time Between Failure (MTBF) requirements for the highest reliability.

Asset tracking, simplified

What was traditionally a complicated configuration and installation is now as simple as installing wireless access points on a network, enabling businesses to easily implement crucial real-time asset tracking capabilities. The Kontron ETX-DC’s computing performance enabled the embedded computing platform to manage the intense information processing requirements required to accurately control inventory, filling orders, moving freight, or monitor time and attendance.

COMs are the right choice to support system expansion and application-specific customization without the use of cables. COMs present a modular solution so that the carrier board includes all the necessary interfaces for the individual application. For asset tracking, COMs provide the ability to use the full capabilities of barcodes and RFID tags so manufacturers can tap into their existing machinery, namely forklifts. COMs are also tough enough for the harsh manufacturing and warehouse environment and supply the necessary low power consumption for mobile applications, enabling industrial computing suppliers to meet their strict thermal management requirements.

The Kontron ETX-DC computing platform matches Everest’s design goals of 24/7 operation in extremes of temperature, moisture, and vibration. And, because of the inherent benefits of standards-based COMs, it provides fulfill support for migration from one platform to the next.

Christine Van De Graaf is the product manager for Kontron America’s Embedded Modules Division located in Northern California’s Silicon Valley. Christine has a decade of experience working in the embedded computing technology industry and holds an MBA in marketing management from California State University, East Bay, Hayward, California.