I am often asked about the use of prototyping plates in end products for industrial or commercial use. I will bring some important points on this subject and show you the main vulnerabilities and workarounds in this scenario.
Programmable logic controllers (PLCs) emerged around the 60s and changed the way industrial automation was done. Relay-based systems were gradually replaced by graphical programming known as LADDER, which is just a representation of wire connections. This technology has revolutionized manufacturing by allowing hours spent handling wire to be replaced by the virtual keyboard. PLCs are mini-computers with CPU, memory, input and output modules, etc., and are very robust for decades in a harsh industrial environment. There is a keyword that defines one of the reasons PLC is still used today in manufacturing and electrical projects: reliability.
As computers evolved, the desire for more automation and information from the production process increased. Investment in industrial automation aims to reduce production costs and increase line efficiency. For this, new technologies have been introduced in this scenario through smart and connected devices. The most widely used industrial equipment today is the PLC itself, as it is prepared to solve the various automation problems. However, due to the high price of PLC and the scarcity of professionals who master the LADDER language, many companies have been using prototyping boards to make small automations and extract information from machines.
THE REVOLUTION OF PROTOTYPING BOARDS
Prototyping boards based on Raspberry Pi, Arduino, and the like have fallen in love with electronics and technology enthusiasts. The story behind the creation of Arduino begins in Italy in 2003, when Italian Hernando Barragán created a programming tool that allowed artists and designers to develop electronic board applications without much technical knowledge. As computers evolved, the desire for more automation and information from the production process increased. Investment in industrial automation aims to reduce production costs and increase line efficiency.
The history of Raspberry Pi is another. In England in 2006, Raspberry Pi founder Eben Upton noted that students’ interest in computer science was declining and that they needed a way to encourage them to enroll in the area. Then came the idea of building a low-cost computer that would allow and encourage young people to embark on this journey. Then in 2008 comes the Raspberry Pi Foundation, an organization dedicated to the creation of these devices. The first version released on the market was the Raspberry Pi 1 Model B in 2012. The company reached the milestone of 25 million boards sold worldwide in 2019.
Raspberry Pi and Arduino are devices of different architecture. Arduino is an electronic card with low processing power, few embedded peripherals,bare metal source code, and lack of an operating system such as Windows or Linux. It can even be used in conjunction with a Raspberry Pi to increase possibilities. Raspberry Pi is literally a computer. See the various benefits of Raspberry Pi:
- Low cost (R$ 100 ~ R$ 300)
- High processing power by board size
- Multiple interfaces (USB, Ethernet, HDMI, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPIOs)
- Supports Linux operating system
- Supports various programming languages like Python (making project creation easy)
- High availability of sample codes
- Making a dedicated card costs a lot of money
Arduino and Raspberry Pi
TECHNICAL RESTRICTIONS FOR INDUSTRY
If you want to develop a personal project, all the points mentioned above are positive. However, whether you want to build an industrial or commercial product, there are other critical points that require attention. Prototyping boards do not have fully validated technical specifications for a harsh industrial scenario. They are devices manufactured for end consumers, individuals. Below are some points that require attention to the business scenario:
These platforms are distributed in open source mode, meaning everyone has access to the system code. The possibility of having structures that involve libraries and open source software is not desirable. There are important issues related to intellectual property, limited distribution, lack of support and most importantly, security risk of embedded code. Just as using unlicensed Windows is fine, so using open source licenses may result in legal issues.
Operating system running on SD card
This case is specific to Raspberry Pi, where the operating system runs through the SD card. Due to the hardware operating characteristics of the card, the system may be corrupted in the event of a power failure causing the application to stop. The problem can be partially overcome by using backup batteries, however it will never be completely safe.
The power circuit of these boards is simple and depends on a good dedicated external source. In the industrial scenario where ambient noise is high and the possibility of voltage peaks and valleys is real, the use of battery bank switched stabilized sources should be considered. Another peculiar point of Raspberry Pi is the lack of its own power connector instead of the existing micro USB.
Wi-Fi or BLE antenna
Most prototyping boards have the Wi-Fi or BLE antenna printed on the circuit. This implies a narrower communication range when compared to using an external antenna. Thinking of an industrial application where the encapsulated board might be inside a metal panel or machine, connection drops can become frequent and affect application performance.
Security and Reliability
PLCs are robust and can be used in most industrial applications. They feature protection against ESD, dirt, vibration, mains noise and mitigate random problems that have been detected in years of testing. In addition, they meet IEC technical standards. Will installing an Arduino to run any application will withstand these bad weather too? What about industrial certifications?
MAIN USE CASES IN INDUSTRY
The list below shows some of the main prototyping board applications:
Sensor Data Collection
With increasing demand for IoT, artificial intelligence, and machine learning, many industries have sought to extract information from the entire industrial process to optimize production. Sensing the lines with inexpensive devices equipped with wireless communication meets this need without causing safety risks.
Legacy Machine Interface
The number of legacy machines in the industries is very high. Many of them do not have wired network access because they are not designed for it. Others even have but do not provide detailed process information such as cycle time, waste etc. Inserting smart devices is an interesting way to make them connected and generate even more added value.
If there is production, there is also inspection or verification in at least one stage of the industrial process. There are numerous sensors and vision systems on the market that can be coupled to prototyping boards that allow you to add value to the production line by anticipating failures. The low cost and ease of implementation make many technicians place these devices on the shop floor.
If there is production, there are product testing tools. In addition to improving speed and ensuring lower error rates, it is possible to extract real-time data from execution, allowing production management to analyze the process at any time. In addition to improving speed and ensuring lower error rates, it is possible to extract real-time data from execution, allowing production management to analyze the process at any time.
OTHER RASPBERRY PI-BASED SOLUTIONS
There are companies in the market that improve Raspberry Pi by adding protection, peripherals and packaging suitable for professional use. These solutions make the device compatible with industrial applications where reliability and safety are mandatory. NetIoT’s netPi and Strato Pi are examples of IEC-certified solutions that address various industry protocols.
CAN I USE IT IN THE INDUSTRY?
Prototyping plates have not been manufactured or tested in a harsh industrial environment. As the concept itself says, they serve to prototype. When viewed from the perspective of investment (low cost) and speed of development (fast), they prove viable to solve minor problems or improvements on the shop floor. In addition, the wide variety of sample codes and the numerous board types help anyone develop an embedded solution. These strengths mean that more expensive and highly secure solutions such as PLC are intended for larger applications where reliability and safety must be strictly followed. However, you should be aware of the vulnerabilities highlighted earlier. In the end, preparing a Raspberry Pi with proper protections, isolation, and regulatory compliance can be as costly as using a built-in PLC.