Over the last few decades, the rising popularity of televisions, tablets, and smartphones has fuelled a giant industry, manufacturing these devices on a large scale to suit the general needs of the consumer market.
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.
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. But under the surface, seemingly versatile television screens have a specification that relates to their specific purpose: that is, providing entertainment for a few hours each day. Thrust into a commercial or industrial environment, this mismatch between specification and usage begins to show.
Over the last decade as Divisional Manager of displays at Pacer, Chris 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 money-minded buyers will often keep throwing consumer units in, with the hope that eventually the right product will fit. Some buyers do come around to an industrial solution, but the road to get 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 seven hours of intended usage” of many consumer TVs, says Waldron, falls short of the 24/7 operating hours of full industrial products, and over time, this mismatched application manifests as extra expense.
The demand for continuous use, in often 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 seven, Waldron continues, but “the warranties are void because of how they’ve been used, and any savings that the monitor might have offered 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. “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 — 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, it may not remain so for long due to the fast-paced updates that help keep consumer products competitive. Each change carries the risk that industry-specific software will no longer be supported, and 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 be very appealing, and finding the middle ground between long-term and short-term, between industrial and consumer products, requires expertise. As Chris 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, 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, 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. Standard consumer processors are quick to get outdated when the semiconductor world shifts on the latest trend, and manufacturers must secure a supply for years to come.