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Fanless Computer Designs and How They Work

With the onset of industry 4.0 and edge computing, manufacturing leaders are making shifts towards better data mobility and analysis in their manufacturing processes. As more and more computers are being activated with the ability to communicate, there is an increasing demand for even smarter and more reliable computers to manage complex automation workloads. And as more manufacturing enterprises are integrating smart machines on the factory floor, this has driven an increased need for rugged, industrial computers that can respond in even the toughest conditions. One common design challenge that is often overlooked is the ability to combat wide thermal temperatures for the most efficient reliability to achieve 24/7 operation in harsh industrial environments.  As a result, there are two main design principles featuring passive or active cooling that is used to dissipate detrimental heat for a computer in rugged industrial deployments. 

What is Passive Cooling and how is it applied for Industrial Computers?  

Passive cooling is a method of achieving high levels of natural air convection and thermal dissipation through architectural designs and heat sinks. For example, the exterior chassis of most industrial computers act as robust heat sinks to transfer heat away for critical components. This design concept offers many advantages for applications in industrial environments that may not be suitable for fanned computers, such as: 

  • Silent operation: Most of the noise from a computer is generated by the fan. Take out the fan and you’re left with completely silent operations as convection forces cold air over heat sinks to maintain thermal threshold. This creates a computer capable of operating in meeting rooms, hospitals, and other noise sensitive locations.  
  • Heat conductivityFanless computers use architectural feats such as metal fins on the chassis to help dissipate heat from computing components like the processor and storage drive. This helps to increase surface area and maximize thermal dissipation while keeping the computer within a safe temperature range, even in extreme wider temperatures.    
  • Less downtime: Rugged embedded computers are buried deep in the framework of larger systems, so having to replace vital components is not ideal. When a fan has a mechanical issue or malfunction, it requires immediate attention as you run the risk of exceeding the thermal threshold.  This is extremely detrimental to the stability and health of the computer and may even permanently damage components, causing downtime to critical operations.  
  • Longer service life: Reducing the amount of moving parts makes computers less susceptible to mechanical failures caused by debris, shock, or vibration. Better protection from contamination that would otherwise lead to system shutdowns will prevent loss in revenue and productivity.   

    Heat sinks are used to shift heat away from critical components towards the exterior chassis where it is dissipated through natural air convection.

    Premio’s product line of rugged, industrial fanless computers are deployed in various environments from factory automation lines to transportation mobile surveillance. Our team of engineers have developed these feature-rich computers around passive cooling technology (fanless) to provide solutions integrator with a world-class industrial computing solution. Constructed from heavy duty aluminum capable of withstanding wide operating temperatures, they make for a balanced computer that caters to the complex, highly specialized requirements for businesses to ensure productivity and reliability in their automation equipment.  

    Active Cooling and how it differs from Passive Cooling 

    Active cooling involves using energy to achieve cooler temperatures as opposed to passive cooling, which relies on natural convection. Active cooling relies on an internal fan to force air or thermoelectric coolers (TEC) through computer components to manage thermal levels. The prime advantage of using a fanned computer is the ability to maximize performance and compute powerFor example, data centers provide multiple rackmount computers and servers for scalable data storage and high performance compute.  These data center computers and servers are reserved for the most complex computational algorithms that provide the foundation for machine learning and  artificial intelligence. In order to provide the highest level of compute power, these computer and servers are actively cooled by powerful ball-bearing fans in a controlled environment.  Whether a computer is cooled using active or passive methods, its critical to provide a means to dissipate heat away from components in a computer to maintain operable temperatures;  there are severe consequences that comes with overheating, such as total systems failure and irreparable component damage.  

    From an engineering standpoint, fanned computers are easier to implement but have several design shortcomings and are not usually suitable for industrial applications:  

    • Noise pollutionHaving an internal fan involves moving components which can become loose and vibrate against the frame of the computer. This could block air vents and generate more heat, causing your fan to work harder than it should. Consequently, the noise produced from the fan would gradually become louder and louder as the fan continues to work overtime. 
    • Particulate contamination: Unlike fanless designs, fanned computers require ventilation for smooth air flow, which exposes the risk of particulate contamination. When the fan is blowing inward, it not only carries in cool air, but also any potential dust or debris in the air. Overtime the accumulation of debris causes blocked vents, potentially damaging electrical components, and causing the computer to eventually to freeze, choke and shutdown.  

      Over time, dust and dirt can accumulate and cause blockages in the fan, exposing your computer to risk of overheating and total systems failure.

      Why Passive Cooling is important for industrial applications?  

      Since moving parts and fans are usually the culprit for point of failures, passive cooling or fanless designs are often preferred for industrial embedded computers.  The key benefit for a passive cooling design is the ability to eliminate moving fans but ultimately to control the level of dust and particulate intrusion, which prevents unnecessary hardware failures.  The concept of a “fanless design” is becoming very popular among industrial and rugged applications that are often exposed to debris, dust, or other harmful contamination. The main goal for an industrial computer is to minimize the amount of moving parts, which in turn increases the reliability and longevity of the computer, especially in vibration and shock prone deployments.  

      So Should You Go Fanless?  

      No matter how it’s accomplished, removing heat through cooling systems is an innate part of computers. Because heat is a natural byproduct of the manufacturing process, there will always be a need to manage temperature levels in the most efficient and effective manner. This is especially important in industrial applications where temperatures fluctuate between extremes. In a space where reliability and longevity are integral for manufacturing success, fanless computers are clearly favored in comparison to traditional fanned systems. Their ability to achieve high levels of natural convection while minimizing risks to component contamination stand out among computers using analog mechanical fans.  

      Premio offers  a wide portfolio of fanless embedded computers that can be used as an industrial computer, rugged edge computer, vehicle computer, and machine vision computer.  See Premio’s entire portfolio of fanless embedded computers.