Choosing The Right Industrial PC In The Food Sector.

Around 65m new computers were shipped worldwide in the first quarter of 2016, that’s over 700k a day. With so many new products now available on the market, choosing equipment that is fit for purpose can be overwhelming. Here, Andrew Byrne, sales engineer at industrial computing specialist Distec, explains why this is particularly challenging for the food industry and how businesses can choose the right industrial PC for food manufacturing.

One of the biggest challenges facing buyers of industrial equipment in the food sector is contamination, with many high profile cases in recent years highlighting the importance of choosing the right equipment for food environments.

For example, in February 2016, confectionary giant Mars announced a recall of many of its chocolate bar products. The recall affected 55 countries and came after a customer discovered a piece of plastic in his Snickers chocolate bar, which was later found to have come from a protective cover used in the manufacturing process.

In total, there were 1,514 cases of contamination in the UK food industry in 2015, according to the Annual Report of Incidents published by the Food Standards Agency (FSA). The worst affected food sectors include meat, poultry, fruit and vegetables, dairy and bakery. Most contamination incidents originated from biological sources, industrial contaminants and allergens. However, 78 of these incidents were directly caused by contamination from foreign bodies, including industrial equipment made of plastic, metal and glass.

Fit for purpose

The pressure on plant managers to cut costs and drive efficiency means that commercial-grade computers are often chosen for use in food applications that firmly require industrial computers designed specifically for the challenges of the sector. The problem is that commercial-grade computers are designed for dry, office, environments where they will typically run for under ten hours a day and use forced convection to cool the machine through built-in vents if it gets hot.

In comparison, industrial plants — whether they are processing and packaging raw meat or washing fruit and vegetables — are wet, temperature-controlled, continuous production environments where industrial computers can be expected to run 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Add to this the fact that equipment in many food applications like abattoirs, fish and poultry packaging, needs to be washed-down with high-pressure washers to prevent the build up of organic matter on surfaces, choosing a computer with a sufficient level of ingress protection and one that is made of rustproof and easy to clean materials is vital.

What to consider

When choosing the right industrial computer for food environments, engineers, buyers and business leaders should consider equipment that adheres to good manufacturing practice (GMP) guidelines. A recent World Health Organisation report explains that, “the layout and design of equipment must aim to minimise the risk of errors and permit effective cleaning and maintenance in order to avoid cross-contamination, build-up of dust or dirt and, in general, any adverse effect on the quality of products”.

Industrial buyers should choose PCs where the ergonomic design features include screens without bezels and touchscreen inputs that can be used with gloves. This eliminates the need for a keyboard and mouse. If manual inputs are needed then opting for a fully enclosed PC with ingress protection, capable of withstanding prolonged use and high levels of vibration and shock is vital.

Users that need dedicated networking and connectivity options in addition to wireless connections should choose PCs that offer integrated PCI expansion network cards sealed within the unit with gland plates to prevent ingress. When attaching devices like scanners and printers it’s important to ensure that the wires and connectors are also sealed and ingress rated.

It isn’t just the immediate hardware specification that buyers need to consider either. When choosing an industrial PC, the long-term management of assets can directly affect their return on investment. Over specifying equipment with unnecessary features can be just as costly as specifying equipment that’s unfit for purpose and needs to be replaced often.

With over 20 years of experience supplying industrial computers, at Distec we advise those choosing the right industrial PC to consider long-term factors such as how the environment, application and user behaviour will change over time. We regularly assess the latest manufacturer development-roadmaps to help our customers future-proof their purchases for years to come.

By building in factors such as depreciation and demand cycles into the buying decision, buyers can ensure a sustainable approach to buying and upgrading their suite of industrial PCs. At Distec we’ve made this process easy by helping our customers through the specification, pre and post sales process as well as by offering ongoing support, having engineers on hand to assist with any problems along the way.

The applications of industrial PCs can be harsh and demanding and choosing the right industrial PC in a market where the volume of computer sales is growing rapidly is not easy. By taking an equally concerted approach to choosing the right industrial PC, the food and beverage industry can overcome the challenges posed by contamination.

Read our latest success stories here:

  • Distec’s Industrial Touchscreen PCs get Seal of Approval in Food Production. Read >
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