Rugged embedded systems boost warehouse efficiency

COMs enable affordable improvements in warehouses and other industrial environments.

2More and more companies are using Computers-On-Modules to address constant shock and vibration, airborne contaminants, and temperature extremes in warehouse environments. An industrial warehouse system case study involving an ETX module highlights the trends and computing challenges facing today's material-handling operations.

Industrial environments such as manufacturing, warehousing, and shipping operations are home to a diverse range of embedded systems that must perform under demanding physical conditions. These systems must be easy-to-use, highly reliable, and offer long product life even while operating in harsh environmental conditions and nonstop work cycles that can impact every level of performance, both human and machine.

When evaluating embedded computing solutions, warehouse operators look for value and the highest-performing computer that can be applied in their specific environment. Processor speed and overall computing performance are not the driving factors in warehouse applications; instead, performance under stringent environmental conditions is critical, with temperature extremes, shock, and vibration as the primary concerns. Many warehouse applications are exposed to a high level of vibration 24 hours a day. At the same time, they might need to perform within extreme temperature fluctuations, such as forklifts that move products from -20 °F freezers out onto loading docks.

To answer this need, many system designers have begun integrating Computers-On-Modules (COMs) that meet the challenging requirements of warehouse computing. COMs provide the right blend of performance and power, simple customization, and tolerance to shock, vibration, and extended temperature ranges. With passive cooling and integration through rugged mounting techniques, COMs represent a practical and cost-effective solution that offers broad standards-based availability and long-term support.

COMs for efficient warehousing

Fixed systems such as conveyor belts function in contrast to portable equipment used for manually operated material handling. In both applications, ruggedized computers are mounted on vehicles such as forklifts and carts or mounted to walls and large machinery. Improving the safety and efficiency of these systems is critical to manufacture and ship products faster than the competition. To get products to market quickly, companies might construct new facilities that automate processes from the ground up. Cranes, conveyor belts, and robotic systems can be coordinated to execute storage and retrieval operations; however, high capital outlay makes these extensive retrofits cost-prohibitive for many types of warehouse operations.

To make affordable improvements in new and existing warehouses, operators are installing small computers onboard their forklifts. These computers help reduce human error, perfect operations by streamlining item location, make empty storage space easily visible, and improve product inventory by calculating the weight of pallets on the forklift. These systems take advantage of advancements in performance versus power consumption, leveraging the computing attributes of COMs that bring performance, easy customization, and low-power characteristics to small form factor systems.

Consider forklift operators who are forced to waste time and resources hunting for a product because they’re not armed with appropriate information on the item’s location or the optimal route for storage, retrieval, and replenish activities. Even a small delay is significant, particularly in the context of a large warehouse floor with extensive product storage and multiple forklift operators. A mere two minutes wasted during a retrieval cycle becomes a critical failure when multiplied by hundreds or thousands of retrieval cycles every week.

Industrial-strength COMs 

A steady flow of technology advances, coupled with broad industry adoption among suppliers and users, has positioned COMs as ideal platforms for scalable small form factor designs, offering low power and simple customization. Because customization is designed into the module’s carrier board rather than the module itself, engineers can devote their full attention and resources to the application at hand. Designers work with a standard module that includes processor, bus, memory, and I/O components and replace the COM as needed when the application demands additional computing power or improved energy efficiency.

Demonstrating its scalability, an ETX-based design could be developed several years ago using the original Intel Pentium processor core. From there, the design could improve performance by switching to the Pentium M. Today, that design could move to the Intel Atom. All of these designs would be able to stay within the ETX product family, allowing OEMs and ODMs to quickly extend product lines with new capabilities. Furthermore, ETX-standardized heat spreader dimensions would ensure easy control of heat dissipation, an important consideration in achieving true interchangeability.

Multiple generations of warehouse applications have been developed using ETX-based COMs. Industrial designers can continue to achieve cost-effective improvements in performance versus power with the integration of 45 nm technology and low-power processors. ETX-based COMs have long-term availability and deliver high-performance capabilities while still supporting legacy technologies.

SATA support is also critical to warehouse computing because of its small size and low profile. SD cards can be integrated and supported either natively or with functionality brought out by the module’s carrier board. Integrated S0/S3 (cold and hot)/S4/S5 suspend modes provide maximum energy savings, another crucial design issue for industrial systems.

Power, performance, productivity

While power consumption might not be a primary concern, its accompanying thermal requirements demand design attention in warehouse applications. Power means heat, an enemy of warehouse systems that are typically sealed and can’t incorporate fans or venting holes to cool the processor. Using the Intel Atom processor N270, COMs such as the Kontron ETX-DC (Figure 1) deliver optimal balance between performance and low power and represent a significant performance versus power consumption advantage over previous COMs using Pentium M processors.

Figure 1: Suitable for industrial computing environments, the Kontron ETX-DC COM is based on the 45 nm Intel Atom processor N270, has a 533 MHz front side bus, and supports up to 2 GB of DDR2-SDRAM SODIMM.
(Click graphic to zoom by 1.9x)

With 2.5 W Thermal Design Power (TDP) for the processor, 6 W TDP for the Intel 82945GSE Graphics Memory Controller Hub, and 1.5 W TDP for the Intel I/O Controller Hub 7-M, designers can anticipate a maximum TDP of 12-15 W implementing the Kontron ETX-DC. The resulting system is ideal for point-of-sale and industrial control applications, as well as harsh environments that require passive cooling and completely sealed housings. Designers can readily implement applications with demands for mean time between failure or electromagnetic compatibility and benefit with reduced total cost of ownership from a best-in-class MIPS percent ratio.

Forklift computing systems enable data retrieval and transmission within all areas of the warehouse. As a sealed system incorporating commonly requested warehouse computing features, this solution can also be fixed mounted. Rugged construction and resistive touch screens handle shock, vibration, temperature extremes, and airborne contaminants with up to 1.6 GHz Atom processing speed and up to 2 GB DRAM. Systems incorporate multiple standard I/O options such as SATA and USB 2.0, along with wireless LAN, WAN, and GPS options. Operators can easily manage systems using a custom onboard diagnostic and configuration utility and take advantage of available expansion slots and varied display sizes to accommodate constrained or unique warehouse spaces.

Smart power features ensure nonstop intelligent power management, including options ranging from 10 V to 60 V isolated internal power supply supported by an internal smart uninterruptible power supply. Warehouse technicians have options such as sunlight-readable displays and programmable backlit function buttons, allowing them to see the screen as they travel through warehouse, freight, and shop floor areas.

Connectivity benefits

These rugged, sealed systems use operator-friendly touch-screen interfaces to connect the forklift to a Warehouse Management System (WMS) via a wireless LAN. Depending on the warehouse implementation, the system might assist operators in identifying the location to pick, replenish, or put away the product, as well as provide the optimal sequence of these events. Real-time access to this information ensures maximum efficiency, supported further by step-by-step routing instruction displayed on-screen.

The WMS interfaces directly with the warehouse’s enterprise resource planning or accounting package, allowing automatic inventory tracking, order processing, and handling of returns. Data collection such as barcode scanning and RFID tags can also be integrated with the WMS.

Forklift computers with WMS solutions are proving to be highly effective in decreasing the waste associated with transportation, human motion, and wait times. Shorter, more direct routes to products cut travel time and capital costs for labor, maintenance, and energy. For example, after putting products away, operators can instruct the forklift to pick products at the closest available location rather than search several possible storage areas. Human motion is dramatically reduced as well, as operators no longer need to exit the forklift to check multiple labels as they search for specific items.

Lean and mean

In a lean industrial facility, any searching activity involved in item retrieval is considered a waste of time and resources. Many of these tasks are well-defined among warehouse operators, driving aggressive management strategies to streamline operations. Defects, transportation, human motion, waiting, inventory, overprocessing, and overproduction are inspiring technology-driven improvements.

Recognizing efficiency as the heart of productivity, management strategies such as Six Sigma, lean manufacturing, and lean distribution have spurred technology commitments designed to eliminate waste and redundancy. COMs fit the bill, showing continued promise in low-power, ultra-mobile applications that require energy-saving x86 processor performance, high-end graphics, and a range of interface options combined with longer battery life.

Shorter time to market, reduced development costs, and simplified development are inherent with interchangeable COMs technologies, including proven connectors and pin-out schemes. Enabling new applications that were previously impossible due to size or power consumption limitations, COMs have made the industrial design process easier by increasing compatibility and upgradability, meeting environmentally demanding performance requirements, and leaving room for designers to anticipate what’s coming next.

Christine Van De Graaf is the product marketing manager for Kontron America’s Embedded Modules Division. Christine has more than 10 years of experience working in the embedded computing technology industry and holds an MBA in marketing management from California State University, East Bay, Hayward, California.

Kontron America