What is an Industrial Motherboard?
An industrial motherboard is an industrial-grade printed circuit board that is located within the computer case and serves as a platform that provides connectivity and expandability for most of the computer hardware components. The motherboard connects various essential computer parts and peripherals such as the processor (CPU), memory (RAM), storage drive (SSDs & HDDs), and graphics card (GPU). There are diverse motherboard designs that are uniquely produced to work with specific processors and memory types.
Typical motherboards are quite similar in terms of their overall function, which is to provide a platform for processing and connectivity. Industrial motherboards come in different shapes, sizes, and features that makes them easily distinguishable from each other. Another attribute that can help with distinguishing between the different types of motherboards is to take a look at their reliability, durability, and longevity. The advancement of IoT solutions and the movement of computing power from the cloud to the edge demands manufacturers to create industrial motherboards that are capable of withstanding the challenging environments in which they are deployed.
Form Factor of Industrial Motherboards
The shapes and sizes of motherboards can vary depending on the fit needed for different sizes of computer cases. These shapes and sizes are also called the form factor. There are no boundaries on how big or small can you design a motherboard’s form factor as long as the manufacturer can produce it. That said, most industrial motherboards follow the ATX and ITX standard form factor for wide range compatibility.
Let’s briefly gloss over the different motherboard standard. The first. The ATX stands for Advanced Technology eXtended standard and it is the most common motherboard form factor developed by Intel back in 1995 as the defacto standard. ATX form factors are separated into different sizes including Extended-ATX, Standard-ATX, and Micro-ATX. On the other hand, there are form factors that their designs are derived from Intel ATX standards such as the ITX form factor. ITX is the abbreviation for Information Technology eXtended, it is a smaller motherboard form factor firstly introduced by VIE Technologies in November 2001. ITX sizes type are including Mini-ITX, Nano-ITX, Pico-ITX, and Mobile-ITX.
Let’s compare these two standards. Dimension wise, ATX standards have larger form factors compared to the smaller and more compact ITX standards. For instance, the smallest form factor for ATX standards the Micro-ATX is still larger than the largest ITX standard form factor which is the Mini-ITX. That said, for deeper comprehension let’s elaborate on some of these form factors that are most demanded today.
Standard-ATX is a considerably large motherboard with a dimension measuring 305mm in length and 244mm in width. Standard-ATX motherboard supports full and Mid-ATX cases screw holes. Standard-ATX motherboards are built with a huge advantage in upgradability when compared to other smaller motherboards. With a Standard-ATX motherboard, you’ll have 4 memory slots with the ability to install up to 64GB RAM and it can support up to 6 PCIe slots, allowing for the installation of PCIe cards such as Wi-Fi cards, GPUs, and sound cards. Standard-ATX upgradability comes with some tradeoff which is a large size and least portability.
Micro-ATX is developed under the Standard-ATX design to provide a more affordable price and smaller form factor. Micro-ATX dimension is measured 244mm in length and width. Similar to Standard-ATX, Micro-ATX has the same RAM with up to 4 DIMM slots. However, it only supports up to 4 PCIe slots. Despite of that, Micro-ATX is a good balance between Standard-ATX and Mini-ITX where it can fit into larger ATX cases and manage to sustain its upgradability.
The Mini-ITX is much more compact motherboard form factor, measuring in at170mm both in width and length. Mini-ITX is small enough to fit on your palm hand, making it very portable when compared to Micro and Standard ATX sizes. Mini-ITX is very beneficial due to its low power consumption yet still powerful enough to run complex tasks. Mini-ITX is expandable up to two memory slots and one PCIe slot. Depending on your configuration, Mini-ITX is also capable of supporting several USB ports, network ports, VGA ports, and/or HDMI ports. The distinctive feature of Mini-ITX is its low power usage is using less than 25 watts and some versions can go as low as five watts.
The Pico-ITX is among the smallest form factor of a motherboard in the ITX standard. Pico-ITX is measured 72mm in width and 100mm in length which is significantly smaller (75% smaller) when compared to the Mini-ITX form factor. Pico-ITX motherboard supports a processor that utilizes VIA’s NanoBGA2 technology that can cover up to 1.5GHz in speed and 128 KB L1 and L2 cache, it also uses DDR2 400/533 SO-DIMM memory with up to 1 GB. Combining the Pico-ITX motherboard with an x86 processor makes incredible IoT and embedded systems applications that commonly exist in factory automation, autonomous vehicle, smart retail, warehouse automation, and many more.
That said, more companies are using smaller form factors that are powerful enough to run IoT solutions. Thus, there is an increasing demand for smaller form factor motherboards such as Micro-ATX and Mini-ITX, especially because Mini-ITX is also compatible with ATX mounting solutions. An additional note when choosing a motherboard form factor, a smaller form factor size can fit into larger form factor cases with the same ATX standard, but you cannot fit a bigger form factor motherboard into smaller cases.
All-in-ONE | SBC (Single Board Computer)
SBC or single-board computer is a completely functional computer configuration that is built onto a single circuit board. Parts and components in a computer that are normally built independently (such as a microprocessor, memory, I/O, and more) from the PCB are now soldered together onto a circuit board, merging them together onto a single board.
Merging all of the components onto a single board creates a low-powered and efficient computer with a compact form factor that is ideal for IoT and edge computing deployments in space-limited environments. Industrial motherboards also come in a small and compact form factor, such as the 3.5-inch industrial grade SBC. IoT and edge computing solutions tend to be task-specific and devices are deployed in harsh environments with space constraints issues. The challenge for such deployments is finding a rugged and compact device that is also capable of delivering powerful processing, fast connectivity, and sufficient storage. Therefore, the 3.5-inch SBC is the perfect compact form factor that is large enough to pack sufficient I/O and other features on the system to support a wide range of industrial applications.
Industrial Motherboard Advantages Compared to Commercial Motherboard
The parts and components of industrial motherboards are very similar to those of commercial motherboards. However, there are other additional factors that distinguish industrial motherboards from commercial motherboards. The key difference stems from its design approach of an industrial motherboard that completely focuses on what works best in tough industrial environments.
Industrial motherboards have a more simple and effective design that makes it easier to use and eliminates unnecessary add-ons that commercial motherboards carry such as RGB lighting and additional components for aesthetics. Moreover, the total cost of ownership for industrial motherboards in the long-term is lower due to their design and standard form factor that they employ, making it easier upgrade and maintain them. This is so because they are specially designed for industrial applications, as such they have been designed and built with versatility and durability in mind, making them reliable and durable enough to last for years.
Here are some common differentiators between industrial and commercial motherboards.
Versatility and Compatibility | I/O
Having the latest I/O configuration isn’t always the perfect case for industrial applications. One of the disadvantages of commercial motherboards is they are focusing only on the latest I/O trends such as adding plenty of USB Type-C inputs. However, in industrial applications, there are plenty of cases that computers and machines need various I/O options that support legacy technologies. Legacy technologies support is important because it reduces upgrade costs and add compatibility issues in industrial systems. As such, industrial motherboards are configurable to support a variety of I/O options for legacy technologies that commercial motherboard generally does not support. These legacy I/O inputs that industrial motherboards still support and can include DIO, GPIO, VGA, DVI, PCI slots, ISA slots, COM ports, serial ports, and many more. Moreover, the Industrial motherboard also supports connectivity features by adding upgrade capabilities for Wi-Fi 6, Bluetooth, and 5G connectivity using external cards through Mini PCIe slots that are routed to on-board SIM-sockets. This proves how versatile and compatible industrial motherboards can be when it comes to industrial applications.
Longevity – Industrial Grade Components
Unlike typical commercial motherboards, industrial motherboards are built out of durable and reliable industrial-grade components to support longevity. All parts and pieces used in making industrial motherboards are selected carefully, this includes selecting items such as specific capacitors, resistors, power chokes, and many more items. This allows industrial motherboards to deliver better electrical performance and more stable system performance despite deployments in harsh environments. Hence, by utilizing industrial-grade components industrial motherboard can last for up to 5 - 7 years. These extra steps help reduces RMAs, increases product lifecycle, and provide a lower total cost of ownership.
Durability - Extreme Temperature Range
To survive in the toughest environments, industrial motherboards can withstand extreme temperature exposure. e Extremely low temperatures and extremely high temperatures are a cause of concern for regular commercial motherboards because they are not built to withstand such cold and heat stresses. In contrast, industrial motherboards can be deployed in the freezing winter where temperatures can reach as low as -40℃ and can also survive in scorching hot environments that can reach up to 85℃. To ensure their durability, industrial motherboards are tested in a controlled facility using temperature and humidity chamber to the industrial motherboards to their limits against extreme temperatures and humidity.
Increased Durability. What is Conformal Coating?
Some industrial motherboard also has an option to apply a conformal coating to increase the motherboard’s durability and longevity. Conformal coating is a method of applying a thin layer of polymeric film on the PCB to add additional protection for the printed circuit board’s components. This coating can increase the motherboard’s capabilities to withstand against dust, moisture, chemical, and extreme temperature exposures. Only specific applications and deployments require conformal coating on the motherboard because it can be costly.