PC/104 in vehicles and industrial applications
Last issue I wrote about PC/104’s long history with military applications and how the architecture was a natural fit for the military’s desire to move away from MIL-SPECS and leverage the innovative, lower cost commercial market. This issue deals with in-vehicle and industrial applications, which means the discussion of how the PC/104 architecture has been and continues to be used has become that much more broad. But to try and address these fields in their entirety would fill novels.
Today, the rate at which new and advanced functionalities are being incorporated in vehicles and industrial applications is accelerating. No longer do you just have a turbine engine with sensors on it that report back parameters to be monitored. Now engines have multiple, built-in, condition-based maintenance devices and computers that monitor and adjust in real time the operations of those engines to increase engine lifecycles and reduce overhaul maintenance that can be extremely time consuming and costly, both in actual maintenance as well as downtime costs. Additionally, vehicles no longer just get you from one point to another. Now vehicles, whether personal, industrial, or military, have a multitude of subsystems, and these subsystems are changing all the time with advancements in computational power and functionality. Since so much time is spent in them, the marketplace is demanding that vehicles incorporate functionalities that are extensions of our homes, jobs, and command posts. They have extensive built-in safety devices to not only protect life and property, but also to record all internal and external operational and environmental data to allow the building of better vehicles, determine causes, and help future training of personnel. And since all of these functionalities are being put in-situ where they are needed, they need to be small, easy to maintain and service, and readily upgradable.
As such, it is becoming ever more difficult for Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) and systems integrators to create all of these subsystems in-house while striving to reduce their time to market. And since these subsystems are covering a vast amount of specialized fields, trying to maintain an in-house expertise is also extremely difficult and costly. No longer may it be feasible for the engine manufacturer to design the computer systems and PCB layouts for each field. Today’s Small Form Factor (SFF) computer board designs often require advanced PCB layout and manufacturing techniques. System-level designers are driven to rely on specialized companies to help with the subsystems. The requirements for standardization to help reduce the risks of product lifetime costs places a premium on selecting specifications that show clear fundamental design with sound and stable evolutionary paths for upgradability and maintenance. This is where the PC/104 architecture has excelled for the last 21 years, because when all is said and done it can be boiled down to a simple truth: when you have the fundamentals down, all else can be built upon it.
The PC/104 architecture is analogous to this (Figure 1). Its design and backward-compatible evolutionary path is built on fundamental building blocks that allow it to be utilized across sectors without losing its universality. Its stackable bus structures with predefined pinouts not only serve to ensure interoperability across manufacturers, but also provide inherent ruggedness that allow it to be used by the most benign and most hostile of applications. Its onboard I/O-centric design allows quick installation and utilization without having OEMs build baseboards to be operational. And since it is a stackable architecture, OEMs can readily search the market for peripheral modules with the functionality they need to quickly create a multitude of solutions that satisfy their requirements. Compound this with its small size of 3.55" by 3.78" and its extensive proven use in the field, and it is easy to see why PC/104 is found in many vehicles and industrial applications throughout the world, including in lab equipment, peppermills, trucks, tanks, ships, aircraft, and spacecraft to name a few. More than ever, engineers are finding PC/104 as their go-to architecture to meet current system requirements while ensuring viability for whatever new technology is around the corner.