The Rough Edge of Rugged Computing

September 23, 2019

Rough around the edges. Cutting edge. On the ragged edge.
You’d think that an edge device by nature would be able to withstand intense environments.

However, not all edge computing devices are created equal. And companies are quickly realizing that what works in the lab for initial testing and software development, doesn’t necessarily work in the field.

What is Edge Computing?

Edge computing refers to the distribution of processing and analysis down to the component parts of a network as opposed to the cloud. By reallocating these tasks, edge devices further optimize the IIoT network by improving speed, and security. In the early days, that “edge” was still a relatively safe space but as IIoT technology explodes in industries like defense and oil and gas, edge computing has to adapt. And when designing for extreme environments, engineers must first clearly define the elements – and subsequent requirements – facing edge computers.

Designing Rugged Edge Computers

While a site visit may be beneficial, thermal engineering teams are often reliant on client-provided parameters including ambient temperature absolutes, airflow rates and any space limitations. Shock and vibration tolerance may also impact early design decisions. Once these specifications are established, component selection begins.

To meet operating temperature requirements, design engineers utilize electronics that not only withstand extremes and efficiently supply and direct power, they give off minimal thermal energy. Once components are selected, testing through simulation and prototyping guides strategic placement to avoid hot spots and magnify heat dissipation. Intentional enclosure selection can help energy discharge, too, often through fins or rods.

Further complicating design needs for edge computing devices, shock and vibration are often significant factors. A carefully integrated layout can minimize effects through low profile surface mount designs and high retention connectors. Locking fasteners with thread-locking adhesives further bolster rugged, edge computers.

A third — and not often discussed — challenge is designing with power disturbances in mind. Wide voltage ranges, spikes and unexpected outages can have a tremendous impact on the success – or failure – of critical applications at the edge. In the event of failure, the benefits of edge devices can quickly become their downfall. Frequently deployed in remote locations, any need for service becomes a time-consuming and expensive undertaking. Having a battery back-up, high-energy capacitors or other alternative power solutions in place emerges as a key element.

Design, Test, Refine

Following design, prototypes undergo a variety of intense test procedures to simulate real-world conditions, ensuring that all standards are met. Thermal chambers can be configured to complete thermal shock and/or thermal soak testing. Thermal shock intends to do just that: shock the device by sudden, extreme temperature changes. Thermals soaks test for device functionality as temperatures cycle through variations and reach thresholds. For shock and vibration testing, dedicated tables intensify the level of vibration while shock chambers use a weighted arm to simulate jackhammer pounds, earthquakes and more. Early testing of prototypes enables design engineers to correct designs and improve the overall quality level of the end product.

At Sealevel, we’re excited about the opportunity to combine over 30 years of experience in designing and manufacturing rugged I/O and computing solutions with new opportunities at the edge. Our team is uniquely qualified to design, build and test edge computers that not only meet rigorous requirements — they exceed them.