USB Technology: Why, What, Which?

March 29, 2019

Why is USB important for Automation?

USB serves as an essential data transmission port and flash or external memory storage connection. It has also become a popular charging tool and a commonly used display port. Its ubiquitous status makes it essential for system integration, interoperability and ease of use.

As industrial automation continues to be a priority, and the Amazon Effect hits manufacturing floors, having the right I/O is a gamechanger. Many factories are aiming for full digitization, starting with machine condition monitoring and UX-friendly floor software that takes guesswork out of the job. However, this monitoring and software relies on industrial computing platforms that can accommodate the necessary control systems, screen interfaces and mobile devices. It’s essential that downstream devices and computer hardware have the right USB ports, plugs and cables.

Moreover, with digitization, industrial spaces – including energy and heavy industry – will see an increasing number of automated machines. Although truly cognitive robots are far away, these complex robots will use machine vision and improve through machine learning to reduce processing time. Their primary benefits will be reducing labor costs, elevating the value of blue-collar jobs and optimizing task output for demand. However, operations involving these robots will require I/O – like USB 4.0 – and embedded computing systems that have immense speed and power.

What is USB?

USB, which stands for Universal Serial Bus, is a cable connected interface that can transmit data, display information or power to connected devices and computers. USB specifications are set by the USB Implementers Forum, or USB-IF, and defined by throughput capabilities. The technology debuted in 1995 with the USB 1.0, which could transfer 12mbps. USB 3.0 – the groundbreaking specification released in 2008 that created the 3.x SuperSpeed family – has a 5Gbps throughput. The USB 3.2 product release has a throughput of 20Gbps.

However, separate specifications exist for different improvements within these generations, such as extra power transfer or higher display quality. Moreover, different accessories can build upon or integrate USB capabilities. These include adapters, isolators or hubs. For example, Sealevel builds a USB Hub designed to transfer power and integrate the ports into an industrial computing platform. As well, USB designs can be improved by proprietary cables that secure connections, diminish disruption and minimize ground loops. Sealevel has an industrial computing USB cable with a latching mechanism proven to prevent disconnection.

Currently, most new industrial and consumer electronic products are equipped with USB 2.0 and 3.x standards. USB products may share a standard but differ in their plug and port type. USB devices can have different port sizes, ranging from the classic Type A rectangular plug to micro-USB, and plug types. For example, USB Type C plugs and ports have no “right way up” like Type A. Barring differently shaped plugs or ports, USBs are forward and backwards compatible, which means a 3.0 port can accept a 2.0 cable and transmit at the 2.0 specification and a 3.0 plug will operate at the 2.0 port standard.

The Thunderbolt interface is a similar cable with comparable capabilities. However, until this past year, it was privately held by Intel and designed for Apple consumer devices. The Apple-Intel Thunderbolt cable has a higher throughput than USB 3.0 but similar specifications to the USB C regarding power transfer. Intel has since given USB-IF access to their Thunderbolt technology.

USB-IF recently released the specifications for USB 4.0 in 2019, revealing a 40Gbps throughput and Thunderbolt design incorporation. This type of throughput is ideal for high-resolution data transmission, such as 4k displays or HD images. Products with USB 4.0 are expected to hit the market in late 2020 or early 2021. It’s expected that new USB 4.0 will allow daisy-chaining of screens and other devices that rely on Thunderbolt technology.

Taking the right Bus: Which USB do I need?

Choosing the right bus is a matter of determining what an application needs: data transmission, dedicated USB power transfer for device charging, display or a combination thereof. Moreover, choosing which cable, plug or port best suits an application is another part of the USB selection process. Many computing tasks require industrial-grade embedded computing solutions that meet several specifications. And, on an industrial scale, many applications require custom I/O solutions designed for durability, reliability and configurability.