Time for a fresh look at SBCs: Why a new take on the Pico-ITX format could be the answer for industrial embedded developers  

It’s true to say Single Board Computers (SBCs) have been around the block a few times – ever since the late seventies in fact. And ever since, the embedded computing industry – Kontron included - has grown to love them. But, of course, way back then nobody had thought about the impact of Internet of Things, let alone Industrial Internet of Things, or come to that, the Internet - period. 


That’s why Kontron, with its long experience in producing high-quality standardized embedded motherboards, SBCs and computer modules (COMs), has been taking a fresh look at SBCs for the modern IIoT world. 


The IIoT is shaking things up and that includes SBCs. Being simply small and low cost no longer cuts it. 

It’s necessary to reconsider the SBC’s inherent weaknesses, especially when exposed to industrial environments. Being typically based on mass-produced standardized boards using inexpensive components is not ideal. They can easily fail and their processors quickly become obsolete. Not so convenient if they are to be deeply embedded on factory floors and power plants for automation, inspection and predictive maintenance purposes; or elsewhere such as in medical or transportation systems, agricultural machinery. We’re talking here about permanent use in complex, harsh and varying conditions with extreme temperature ranges, moisture, dust and vibration. Security is also now a major consideration because of the hyper interconnectivity.


There is also reduced scope for upgrading or customization of standardized SBCs. Applications where, for example, a Real Time Clock, additional serial interfaces / GPIOs and optional remote maintenance connections may be required. And if special interfaces are to be implemented on the motherboard or via a plug-in card, then the know-how of the manufacturer is a further important consideration.


OK, the Mini-ITX format SBC is fine and remains very popular, and sure there are other smaller SBCs on the market. Raspberry Pi is a good example, but it’s for the education, home and hobbyist markets. Products such as these are not proven in the industrial arena. And product lifetime support is considerably shorter than the 7 – 10 years that’s expected. 


So why not reconsider the Pico-ITX 2.5” SBC format? It’s obviously very compact and therefore highly suited to increasingly space-constrained ARM and x86 embedded applications. At the same time the latest processor and System-on-Chip (SoC) technologies are moving towards even more dense on-board integration. Such developments also reduce the necessity for as many standard PC expansion slots. Just a few small form factor extensions are required such as M.2, mPCIe and mSATA. This all works in the Pico’s favour.  


And if significant customization is less of a priority, the Pico SBC can offer a faster time to market than COMs. It can also prove to be more cost-effective than COMs when special, shorter production runs are necessary – for instance, in the 2500 – 4000 unit range.


Kontron, the initiator of COM Express has applied its knowledge of COMs design, manufacturing and support to the cost savings advantages of high-volume SBC production. 

Kontron is leading the industry in offering an affordable and comprehensive range of industrial-grade, ‘ready-to-go’ SBCs. This includes Intel-based 2.5” Pico and 3.5” SBC solutions as well as one of the very first Pico-ITX SBCs to support ARM technology.  


Kontron’s x86 and ARM 100 x 72mm Pico-ITX format range adheres to international industry size standards with well-defined mounting holes and standard I/O bracket areas. With real-time capability and support of multiple operating systems, the range addresses the full spectrum of IIoT demands, from powerful and graphics intensive applications found in mechanical engineering, automation and control systems through to the high-performance, low power consumption needs of robotics, test and measurement devices.


In the IIoT world, embedded systems developers now expect a lot more from their SBCs. Smallest possible footprint, powerful processing, low power consumption, wireless connectivity – and let’ not forget reliability, security and product longevity.


Thanks to Kontron, it looks like the Pico ticks all the right boxes. What do you think?


For more information about Kontron’s latest SBC range including Pico-ITX, please visit https://www.kontron.com/products/boards-and-standard-form-factors/single-board-computer

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