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A panel PC fit for the food industry

23 May 2018

The revolution in smart manufacturing has been employed at varying rates across all manufacturing sectors, with the food processing industry leading the way, says Rory Dear. This requires the use of panel PCs which are fit for use in food production environments. 

The ever-increasing pressure to reduce costs in the face of increasing material costs drives the thirst of production managers to increase productivity through improved efficiency, Datasound Laboratories Ltd (DSL) is seeing evidence of this every day.

Of course, a food environment is naturally not the same as other run-of-the-mill factory floors. The ubiquitous hygiene requirements, consequences of non-compliance and likely threat of litigation are all contributory factors that demand a special solution.

Historically, panel PCs were exclusively manufactured from steel. While this may be treated and painted, at its heart it will corrode and so would never be suitable for deployment in a food processing environment. While aluminium alternatives, have the benefit of offering big reductions in unit weight, the risk of contamination from surface formation of aluminium oxide renders this material similarly unsuitable for use in food production environments. Stainless steel is the obvious solution, but which type?

Type 304 stainless steel is used on food industry sinks and cooking utensils, and is especially suited for all types of food processing – especially dairy and brewing equipment. The citrus and fruit juice industry also uses Type 304 – in fact over 50% of all stainless steel products you will ever come across is 304 – and there are over 20 types.

Type 316L stainless steel is, typically, employed in more severe environments, that require a higher level of corrosion resistance than Type 304 can offer – the key difference the addition of Molybdenum. For this reason, Type 316L can withstand corrosive attack from sodium and calcium brines, hypochlorite solutions and most acids. Type 316L is actually rarely a requirement in food production environments, except in exceptional cases and it is predominantly found in harsh chemical processing and marine environments.

Nothing new
Stainless steel panel PCs are not necessarily a new development, though historically attempts faltered due to the inevitable use of non-compliant materials beyond the bezel. DSL’s models, however, use stainless steel throughout, even including the waterproof IP69K I/O connectors and the mounting bracket.

This latter issue bordered upon the outrageous, the near complete non-availability of stainless steel VESA mounts (a family of standards defined by the Video Electronics Standards Association for mounting flat panel monitors, and other displays to stands or wall mounts). Inexplicably, installers intending to ensure a corrosion free and food safe installation had to resort to the use of non-compliant materials (such as steel) to physically mount the devices. In addition to the obvious danger of this, the VESA mounts were invariably jet black! Mysteriously, even today, very few manufacturers outside of DSL satisfy this requirement.

The second historical failure of stainless steel panel PCs was indirectly, available performance. Active cooling techniques requiring fan-based cooling, which of course requires ventilation and this negates any IP rating. Fanless alternatives, cleverly using the latest passive cooling technology which efficiently uses the stainless steel enclosure as the heatsink – entirely resolves this issue.

The third traditional issue relates to the touchscreen technology itself. Resistive touchscreens are, by today’s standards, somewhat fragile. In the retail world, where they were commonly deployed in satellite navigation devices, failure due to damage has far fewer ramifications than similar damage occurring on any kind of production line. As food processing plants tend to use such machines to control, as well as monitor, such a failure would be disastrous. Damage to screens is typically caused by excessive pressure or through the use of a foreign object by operators. Damage can also occur as a result of the use of chemical cleaning agents and high intensity pressure washing, which are both prevalent in food production environments.

Touchscreen technology
Projective capacitive touchscreen technology, combined with 7H hardened glass addresses the shortfalls of resistive technology. By combining the highest level IP rating, IP69K, such panel PCs can be pressure washed with 80°C water. Even further combining IP69K, projective capacitive technology and Type 316L stainless steel – panel PCs can be hygienically cleaned using the harshest chemical cleaning agents.

Wide operating temperatures additionally enable deployment of the units at all stages of production, be that baking or rapid freezing. DSL’s standard range now has an operating temperature range of from -20°C to 60°C, even wider temperature ranges are available on special request.

Most food processing panel PCs communicate via the factory’s IP network, though if your local I/O requirement is sufficiently unique, rare and even proprietary I/O interfaces can be included by customisation by expert vendors. With clients able to specify not only the interface, but the connector type and location – the food industry finally has a ‘fit and forget’ panel PC solution.

Are they sexy? While seemingly a bizarre question to ask about food processing equipment, aesthetics and branding are so important nowadays, everywhere. Thankfully stainless steel is a visually attractive material to start with. Combined with the look and feel of the retail world’s most premium tablet and the ability to add custom graphics/logos to the devices, the aesthetics are exhibition grade out of the box.

Rory Dear is managing director at DSL. 

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