Packages: protecting whatís inside

The second half of trade show season is upon us, but the end is near. The season starts in the fall just as the weather’s getting nasty. Myriad conferences are held from October to April, ranging from military shows such as AUSA (Washington D.C. and Florida) and MILCOM to the galaxy-sized Consumer Electronics Show and the more focused EclipseCon and RFID World. To date, I’ve spent a lot of time at military shows where packaging, temperature, and component-related issues take center stage. Since PC/104’s ruggedness is finding homes in more defense applications, let me share some observations on packaging Small Form Factor (SFF) boards.

Shoe boxes
The biggest trend I’ve noted this season is rugged cases, which are often roughly the size of shoe boxes and sold into military applications such as graphics subsystems, mission computers, I/O controllers, and all manner of special-purpose subsystems. In many cases – no pun – these rugged-looking, billet-style chassis are populated with PC/104, PC/104-Plus, and EPIC boards. At the recent AFCEA (Technet) West in sunny San Diego, I counted nearly 20 companies displaying these rugged boxes.

The hope of most SFF vendors is that a catalog-listed box such as the rugged mobile server MIL-CORE or IND-CORE series from Octagon Systems will attract customers’ attention but then be modified for a production run. By building the catalog versions first, companies like Ampro, Diamond Systems, Parvus, and VersaLogic demonstrate credibility (the thing actually exists), and then create a modified COTS version to meet specific customer requirements. One of the “newbies” to me was a custom systems integrator called ACMA Computer. They showcased a handful of these shoe boxes and seem to have the stripes to sell to the military via their government group and GSA-listed products. They reminded me a lot of Advantech and Kontron, but admittedly I haven’t visited ACMA’s facilities like I have with these other two.

To me, the “original” rugged box was the CT-104 Can-Tainer by Tri-M Systems, which is licensed by a number of PC/104 suppliers. Designed as a rounded-off square tube that swallows a PC/104 stack, the Can-Tainer proved the robustness of PC/104 assemblies in semirugged industrial and military applications. Other companies have also improved on the Can-Tainer concept, such as Macrolink and ACCES I/O with their purpose-built chassis.

Really COTS
While creating off-the-shelf and semicustom chassis for SFFs is one way to package electronics, another is to cocoon the assembly in a low-cost plastic case. This is the strategy many rugged laptop and Tablet PC companies such as Panasonic (with their Toughbook, also at these shows) and Itronix are following. Defense prime General Dynamics acquired Itronix in September 2005, indicating the importance of rugged, cocooned COTS electronic computers. In these systems, the mostly commercial laptop electronics are housed in a semirugged or rubberized case to protect the guts from salt, fog, rain, shock, and vibration.

Another way of protecting electronics is as simple as the civilian Otterbox products designed for iPods, PDAs, smartphones, and other consumer doodads. I recently evaluated the 2G iPod nano Otterbox case and found it provided an exemplary way to protect SFF electronics. Using a watertight Lucite-like box, the nano is easily inserted and extracted while leaving easy access to the screen and scroll wheel. Moreover, there’s a built-in headphone jack that connects with the unit’s own jack, thus keeping out water. My point is this: literally out-of-the-box thinking using simple cases like this or those from axio or Pelican might be all that’s required to make a PC/104 or other SFF assembly rugged.

Final word of warning
Now that I’ve given readers some ideas of how to deploy SFFs in rugged applications, it’s also appropriate to provide vendors with some cautionary words about doing business with the DoD. As we went to press, defense contractor ITT Corporation was found guilty by the U.S. District Court of providing technical data concerning a defense assembly to contractors in China, Singapore, and the United Kingdom. Apparently ITT was shopping for lower-cost manufacturing for the U.S. military’s night vision goggles – and ran afoul of arms export regulations. Total fine: $100 million.

The United States is very sensitive about keeping certain core technologies inside the country, and there are Federal Acquisition Regulations (FARs) and International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITARS) rules that vendors must follow. The company Exostar, cofounded by BAE Systems, Boeing, Lockheed-Martin, Raytheon, and Rolls-Royce makes a business out of helping to coordinate export manufacturing logistics and has established an Export Control Working Group (ECWG) to aid companies.

Lots of opportunities are out there: do your homework and pay close attention to the overall “package.”

Chris A. Ciufo