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What is an Embedded Computer?

Embedded computers can be broadly summarized as a computer with a dedicated function that is physically implemented as part of a larger system. They come in an endless array of shapes and sizes so you can use them in a wide range of applications, anywhere from controlling monitoring and controlling automation lines to managing bus surveillance cameras for mass transit. Additionally, their dedicated nature allows engineers to optimize specific configurations for lower hardware requirements and programmable software.  As technology continues to advance, these embedded computers are becoming smarter and more complex, playing a key role in advancing IoT and promoting connections between people to machines.  

Today almost everything runs on embedded computers, from soda vending machines to automotive systems. And it's estimated that by the end of 2025, the embedded computing market will become a $105.7 billion industry, a staggering rise from the $68.9 billion evaluation in 2017. [1]

Soda vending machines across the globe use embedded computer systems to help manage inventory numbers and monitor temperature levels in real time, providing chilled beverages throughout the day

Characteristics of Embedded Computers  

Even though embedded computers cover a wide range of special-purpose systems, there are shared characteristics between them that provide advantageous benefits to excel in many computing conditions: 

  • Small form factor reduces component complexities with soldered components and SoC design, allowing for various applications in tight locations and rugged deployments. 
  • Passive cooling through heat pipes and heat sinks eliminates the need for mechanical fans that expose internal components to dust and debris. Most embedded computers use low thermal design power (TDP) components combined with a passive cooling design; this combination is a key characteristic of embedded computing that helps dissipate harmful heat generated by components. This type of design makes it feasible for embedded computing deployments in rugged applications where temperature may not be controlled. Learn more about the differences of passive and active cooling methods in embedded industrial computing.    
  • Rugged design features that support wide operating temperature, wide voltage, and resistance against shock and vibration. These features are necessary in ensuring the longevity and stability of products to minimize points of failure. The wide range of operating temperatures allows for deployment in outdoor environments where temperature cannot be controlled, and wide voltage protection is necessary for environments that experience voltage spikes. Additionally, shock and vibration resistance are integral for in-vehicle applications, especially for mission-critical services where reliability is a must. 
  • Low maintenance and reliability are of the utmost importance for embedded computers, which is why they rely on fanless and cableless designs to minimize the number of moving components. These specific types of designs reduce the risk of damaging components in rugged applications where shock and vibration elements may be present. Additionally, some industrial applications require systems to run continuously since repairs or shutdowns can be detrimental to the manufacturing process; thus, creating a demand for an embedded computer capable to provide long term reliability an 24/7 functionality. 
  • Dedicated nature of embedded computers allows them to take advantage of customized software to minimize hardware requirements. For example, Microsoft provides a version of Windows (Win 10 IoT) specifically targeted for embedded and IoT applications.  Windows 10 IoT has helpful developer tools and informative support that simplifies the process so you can create your own IoT vision.  
  • Low power consumption through more power-efficient processors that reduce the amount of heat generated by internal components. For example, Intel offers a line of multi-core SoC mobile processors that feature power efficient processing with low power consumption.  This eliminates the need for fans and moving components which reduces power consumption to achieve overall lower costs. Learn more about the differences between a system on chip (Soc) versus a socket processor.  
  • Internet of things (IoT) will be the cornerstone for major players in the embedded system looking to transform their products with AI, machine learning, and edge computing. The IoT ecosystem brings together sensory data they collect with processing capabilities of embedded computers, where they can be analyzed and used for actionable results. IoT encourages companies to enhance their productivity and rethink the way they approach business. 

    Security and surveillance technology have embedded computers that use facial recognition to track people and machine learning analytics to identify individuals in real time.

    Embedded Computer vs. General Computers 

    The main difference between embedded computers and general computers comes down to their design philosophy. Embedded computers are task specific, dedicated to completing a single task as efficiently as possible with little to no human interaction. Their dedicated nature takes advantage of lightweight software and on-board ASICS (Application specific Integrated circuits) to minimize hardware costs and power consumption. And since they are employed in a wide variety of environments, the approach to designing them will depend on where they will be used. Most embedded computers either feature a socket or SoC CPU design to balance the best of both power and performance desired. In situations that require higher performance, using a socket CPU design would be ideal. But if you need something with less performance but greater functionality, a SoC chip would be enough.  

    Against the embedded computer, the defining characteristics of a general computer is its ability to be reconfigured for multiple purposes. They can be made to do any kinds of programming, giving them more flexible applications comparatively. This is more geared towards everyday applications in offices or households.  

    Embedded Computers Systems Categories and how they are classified? 

    • Real-Time Embedded Computers provide quick response for critical situations and continually react to changes in the system's environment.  Quality hardware is used in these systems to minimize any potential failure points since it cannot be shut down for repair and must be kept running for safety reasons. These days there is a high demand for real-time embedded systems for applications in train signals undersea maintenance, and aerospace navigation.  
    • Network Embedded Computers are dependent on a connected network to perform its assigned tasks. The network can either be a local or wide area network and the connection of the network can be wired or wireless. Most prominent applications are in office security systems that connect different sensors and controllers to function. 
    • Mobile Embedded Computers are meant for mobile connections, so they are very limited in resources such as memory. They are used in smartphones and digital cameras due to their compact size.  
    • Rugged embedded Computers are compact, powerful systems engineered to sustain even the harshest environments and extreme temperatures. These small, rugged systems are the ideal solution for mission critical applications such as patient monitoring and military defense.  

    Premio rugged embedded computer features a wide variety of serial I/O ports that support legacy equipment and patented aluminum chassis for full enclosure in even the harshest environments

    Most Popular Applications for Embedded Computers? 

    Embedded computers have become a staple in our lives, integrated in almost all electronics that we use daily. And they’re only going to continue growing, driven in large part by the internet of things (IoT).  Their industrial-grade construction gives them their rugged edge to be employed in enterprise-wide applications.  

    • Security and surveillance: embedded systems provide access complete visual feeds from mobile IP cameras and sensors on your mobile from anywhere. They can be installed in your homes or in public transportation services.  
    • Machine vision: a combination of industrial hardware and trained software for operational guidance to devices based on the capture and analysis of images sensory data. Applications range from lights-out manufacturing to co-bot manufacturing.  
    • Digital signage: use digital screens such as LED panels, high resolution displays, and projectors to display informative content. Most common uses are for digital advertisements.  
    • Factory automation: use of real-time computing technologies for controlling and monitoring industrial processes, devices and machines. The repetitive tasks on a production line can be easily automated to work through well-defined processes, reducing human interaction to an absolute minimum. 
    • Transportation: embedded computers provide safe and reliable data transmission between sensors and other devices. With the onset of 5G connectivity, data transfer is becoming increasingly faster and more efficient, allowing decisions to made in real-time, which will help to automate the transportation industry, from flights to automobiles.  

    Self-service kiosks like these have an embedded computer and interactive HMI that helps connect humans to machine for more efficient interactions.

    [1] https://www.thomasnet.com/insights/5-key-trends-for-embedded-systems-in-2019/