Challenging Environments Part I: The Physical Demands on Technology Solutions

June 18, 2019

Deeper, higher, dirtier and longer: industries are going further than ever in their operations. The technology used to support their missions must be able to go the distance with rugged enhancements. Environmental challenges and other extreme forces challenging heavy industry, military and transportation and see how engineering innovations are rising to these new standards.

What is Rugged Technology?

No chiseled jawlines or rough hands and flannel here: rugged technology is about using precision engineering and durable materials to prevent destructive forces from disrupting essential operations.

For mainstream brands, this co-opted term means “technology that can be dropped in the lake.” However, on an industrial scale, truly ruggedized technology meets a strict set of requirements and passes several ratings – often military determined – that evaluate how long the device will maintain its functionality without harm in harsh environments and under severe conditions. The requirements consider a litany of potential risk factors.

Making rugged technology involves a long, complicated process of evaluation, prototyping, testing and error-free production. Designers and builders must first figure out what disruptive forces will and could affect operations. After this evaluation, engineers will prototype several designs, which get subjected to vigorous testing and simulations that model the environments and events facing the technology.

Finally, immaculate production ensures the device is durable enough to reliably serve its purpose across those challenging conditions. In this last stage, the smallest details of construction receive attention: from choosing a glue with the same thermal operation conditions to evenly and thoroughly coating interfaces in protective coatings that meet the specs. This stage is also where testing gets reintroduced to ensure that every piece tested continues to serve the function required.

Rugged Components

Ruggedizing technology is not as simple as slapping on a hard case and calling it a day. Analysis of individual components and associated parts result in highly specific updates that protect the machine. An overall rugged device will be protected across specifications. There are three key areas of components that receive the rugged treatment: attachments and enclosure; power supply and computing essentials.

Attachments include things like cabling or latches as well as user interfaces such as touch screens. Ensuring that cords and latches are resistant to moisture, bending or crushing and thermal energy will help reduce incidences of disconnection. Touch screens, as popular and convenient user interfaces, require plenty of reinforcement in terms of screen material and construction along with secure, durable framing. Scratches, cracks or contamination can render a screen useless and prevent engagement with the machine. Enclosure is related to attachment in terms of strength and optimization. With circumstantial forces like vibration or shock, enclosures must withstand forces to protect the internally delicate components. Moreover, mechanical bodies need to seal against moisture or contaminants while still optimizing for air flow and access.

Power supply, as an integral part of operation, must be protected and reliable in order to meet rugged requirements. However, power supply locations tend to give off the most heat relative to other components. Consequently, using the largest supply may not always be the most effective. Sometimes, a smaller supply with alternative power sources such as solar or CHG make for better selections. An effective way to ruggedize power supply is power management via encoded hardware or software tools. These prevent a rapid shut off from damaging components elsewhere in the device that rely on power.

Ruggedizing computing essentials primarily consists of discerning component selection and placement for any electromechanical device that runs its system on a chip or interface board. All computing machines have a fundamental carrier board that – once equipped with component parts like processors, RAM, USB and ethernet – directs the device’s programs. These carrier boards would be known as motherboards in consumer spaces.

Each of those component parts has vital responsibilities, but their selection and placement must account for a variety of concerns. They must be interspersed with heat sinks, which dissipate thermal energy by connecting hotspots to cooling liquid-gels. As well, components that require power will need to be closer to the supply, but not too close to other heat generating pieces. Selections and placements must account for things like dirt or moisture, considering factors like materials that resist corrosion. During the attachment process in the production office, electrical engineers must also indicate whether more secure connections must be made beyond soldering, such as glue.

Not only must the computing essentials be well-chosen and placed, but they must be wired in sustainable, reliable pathways. For the most rugged computers, substrate boards may contain as many as 16 layers of material, each one containing electrical wiring that accommodate the variable electrical pathways required for components. This “PCB design” is tedious, but essential: poor wiring can lead to board malfunctions or short field lives as sparks and blown lines damage the board. The best PCB designs will last through the worst environments, a few repairs and still inspire the next designs.