Battle of the fixes: a quick fix vs the right fix...
02 March 2020
Over the last few decades, rising popularity of flat screen TVs, tablets & smartphones has fuelled a giant industry, manufacturing these devices on a large scale to suit the general needs of the consumer market.
This article was originally featured in the March 2020 issue of EPDT magazine [read the digital issue]. Sign up to receive your own copy each month.
Attracted by cost savings and ready availability, companies are increasingly adopting these consumer products within industrial embedded systems. However, by selecting mass produced systems over bespoke designs, companies choosing this route take on additional risk, encountering issues of longevity, reliability and maintainability that can push up the total cost of ownership. Chris Waldron, Division Manager at optoelectronics specialists, Pacer Displays believes this can be overcome by applying the right expertise, enabling a balance to be struck between industrial quality and consumer budgeting. But doing so effectively can be difficult, requiring a long-term perspective and a deep understanding of electronics...
The quick fix
To the untrained eye, the difference between a £400 TV from your local electronics retailer and a £1000 specialised industrial screen can seem insignificant. The choice seems like a no-brainer: why spend £1000 on an industrial HMI when I can buy a flat screen television from Currys or Amazon for £400 or £500 that kind of does the same job?
But under the surface, seemingly versatile consumer TV screens have a specification that relates to their specific use case: that is, providing entertainment for a few hours each day. Thrust into a commercial or industrial environment, this mismatch between specification and usage can begin to show.
Over the last decade as Divisional Manager of displays at Pacer, Waldron has seen more than a few firms turn to consumer products with an eye to saving money. The “good enough” argument, he says, has got stronger over the years – and budget-conscious buyers will often keep throwing consumer units in, with the hope that eventually the right product will fit. Some buyers, Waldron says, do come around to an industrial solution, but the road to getting there is often littered with lost investment.
Digital signs, like those showing critical information in airport waiting rooms, football grounds or railway stations, are sometimes swapped out for consumer products by organisations trying to cut costs. But the “7 hours of intended usage” specification of many consumer TVs, says Waldron, falls short of the 24/7 operating hours of built-for-purpose industrial products – and over time, this mismatched application manifests as extra expense.
The demand for continuous use, often in less than optimal conditions, can cause consumer products to fail – developing dark spots from overuse, or fracturing the fragile plastic casing.
Not only are displays stretched beyond their limits by running 24 hours instead of 7, Waldron continues, but “the warranties are void because of how they’ve been used – and any savings that the monitor might have delivered in the first instance are then negated by the downtime suffered.”
This could be lost revenue from advertisers, or in more critical applications, failings across the whole business. And, “while it might be easy to switch up another TV from the several you were able to acquire for less than the cost of an industrial screen”, says Waldron, “the additional cost of paying engineers to go on site and change equipment brings costs right back up.”
On a smaller scale, handheld displays like iPads and Android tablets have also found their way into industry, where the same versatility that makes them so useful to consumers, can make them a liability:
“We used to supply an industrial panel PC for use in public environments” says Waldron. “These were effectively replaced with low cost consumer tablets, which were easily broken and attractive to thieves. But more importantly – and what caused the customers to reconsider an industrial solution – was that if the tablets didn’t have the specific OS locked down, they would be open to other uses, abuse and would likely get corrupted, meaning tablets would go into sleep mode or freeze, and then require a manual reboot.”
When a consumer tablet is working well in industry, Waldron continues, it may not remain so for long. The fast-paced updates that help keep consumer products competitive, can turn tablets in industry into ticking time-bombs, with each change carrying the risk that industry-specific software will no longer be supported. Or, that new security loopholes could be opened up that leave the tablet vulnerable to attack – a problem that would be unlikely to arise with the custom-built operating system of an industrial solution.
The right fix
Even with the possibility of trouble further down the line, saving initial costs can still prove very appealing, and finding the middle ground between long-term and short-term, between industrial and consumer products, requires expertise. As Waldron says, “it’s a gamble as to whether you should buy ten consumer TVs, or a single digital signage application – and there are arguments for going down the cheaper consumer route, but will they last long enough? Will they be good enough?”
Fortunately, as the competitive consumer world has impacted industrial manufacturing, choosing the better long-term solution has become easier than ever, with some manufacturers creating a crossover category – a compromise between industrial and consumer that balances an industrial specification with the budget of entry-level consumer products.
An example can be found with room-entry monitoring solutions that rely on functional screens somewhere between fully-fledged panel PCs and tablets. With this crossover approach, Pacer’s Embedded Product Manager, Mark Widdowson says, the product can maintain the “capabilities of a tablet but still hold on to the industrial specification.”
Creating such a product, with enough longevity for industrial use, however, requires careful control over the supply chain. Widdowson calls out a specific product as an example – the Avalue open-frame, a unit that keeps costs low by using the same standard processor found in consumer PCs. But, as standard consumer processors are quick to get outdated when the semiconductor world shifts on the latest trend, the manufacturer has already secured a supply for years to come: “Avalue bought many years’ worth of stock from Intel, to enable them to ensure that the platform could supply the industrial market for around five years, instead of just one or two.”
Finding a solution like this, Widdowson suggests, can be as simple as starting a conversation – tapping into the right expertise and experience to find a fix that balances both cost and longevity.
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