Many of the projects I do for my EiED Online column incorporate hardware from a wide range of suppliers. Often these suppliers can help designers with more than just hardware and software. Advice, training and custom designs are just a few areas in which vendors can provide added value.
Logic Supply is a US-based Mini-ITX systems solution provider and component reseller focusing on customers throughout the US and Canada. Logic Supply provided the VoomPC Car PC Mini-ITX Case and the M2-ATX 12-V dc-dc, automotive 160-W dc-dc Power Supply for the Car PC project.
Logic Supply is focused on OEMs working in the embedded applications market where the mini-ITX solution delivers excellent performance in a system characterized by efficient power consumption, small physical size, low noise emission, and design flexibility. Their goal is to provide system design expertise, system integration, and technical support that meet the demanding needs of their customers.
Scott Hayden is the Sales Director for Logic Supply. His background is in industrial automation, medical instrumentation, and computer hardware, working with companies including Tyco Electronics, Siemens Medical Systems and Digital Equipment Corp.
Scott was kind enough to answer a few questions about the Mini-ITX market. Companies like Logic Supply do support hobbyists but the bulk of their customers are design engineers and commercial customers delivering custom solutions.
William Wong: Logic Supply has concentrated on the Mini-ITX market. Why did you choose to support this market?
Scott Hayden: The initial decision was driven by Logic Supply's founder, Roland Groeneveld. He had experience working with the Mini-ITX form factor in Europe and realized that there was limited resources available for Mini-ITX solutions in the US. This turned into a business opportunity with a focus on providing embedded system solutions.
Wong: What are the advantages of using platforms like Mini-ITX?
Hayden: The advantages of this platform are many. It starts with the small form factor (6.7 in. × 6.7 in.) making it ideal for full functioning embedded systems that require ; x86 compatibility, comparable I/O to larger form factors, customizability to meet application requirements and an expanding supply base of boards, power supplies, cases and components. Case solutions allow for fanless operation, additional I/O slots and a variety of footprints to meet a wide range of market needs. This results in reduce development time and cost for our customers.
Wong: Mini-ITX was originally developed by VIA who is still a major player in this market delivering motherboards and processors. Are there other sources for motherboards and different processors available in this marketplace?
Hayden: Currently, there are dozens of manufacturers making Mini-ITX form-factor boards. In addition to VIA, Mini-ITX boards are offered by Commell, iBASE, DFI-ACP as well as such leading embedded players such as Kontron, Advantech, and Axiomtek. We are constantly reviewing new products that we feel will meet the needs of this growing market. This includes: CoreDuo, Core2 Duo (MEMROM), power efficient processors and more.
Wong: Logic Supply provides its customers with hardware and software products but do you also provide engineering services?
Hayden: We are expanding our services based on our customer's needs. In addition to system integration, design consulting and software imaging, we are expanding to include software development, custom hardware and packaging.
Wong: What are some common customer applications that your engineers work on?
Hayden: We are focused on 7 market segments which include: mobile computing, machine control/vision systems, digital signage, point of use/kiosk, embedded appliances, data logging, and networking. Example include: Industrial control — A paper mill utilizes a fanless system for process control. The harsh environment destroys a standard PC with a fan. Digital Signage — A small system that fits into a 31-in. LCD monitor enclosure, uses a wireless LAN to display real-time images. Point of Use — An electronic voting machine uses a mini-ITX board and hardware to drive the user interface and data collection during elections. Embedded Appliance — A manufacturer of products for the blind uses a Mini-ITX engine to drive a text scanner that allow blind people to read printed material. Networking — A company monitoring energy utilization uses a fanless system to transmit.
Wong: Some of the EiED Online projects are hobby oriented that track similar commercial applications. I know that Logic Supply services both markets. What percentage of your customers is doing commercial applications?
Hayden: When Logic Supply was formed in 2003, we had a high percentage of hobbyists. Over time, two shifts occurred; some hobbyist turned into hardware developers and the acceptance of the form factor accelerated to the point where about 87% of our customers are working on commercial applications.
Wong: An x86-compatible platform like Mini-ITX can support a range of operating systems. What do you see as the most common ones in use by your customers and how often are real-time services a requirement?
Hayden: The most common operating systems we see our customers use include: Windows XP, XP Embedded, Linux, Embedded Linux, BSD. Generally speaking, the majority of our customers do not use a RTOS because the hardware can support a more fully functioning OS. We do see a growing use of Linux as an OS.
Wong: What types of software, other than operating system, can Logic Supply provide to customers?
Hayden: Logic Supply has experience in developing custom Linux platforms and is working towards providing more Applications Engineering for Linux applications. In addition, we have customized solutions for Digital Signage applications.
Wong: Getting to market quickly with minimal up front costs often means using as many off the shelf parts as possible especially cases and power supplies. What are some of the options and advantages of products that Logic Supply can provide in this area?
Hayden: Customer save on development time be leveraging our application experience to narrow the scope of products and options. In addition, we have scaled the learning curve by building and testing almost every combination of system offered. By stocking about 98% of the items we show on our web page, we can ship products the same day. This allow customers to begin the development process within 2-4 days after they contact us.
Wong: I am using the VoomPC Car PC Mini-ITX Case in this project. It this something that would be used exclusively in an automotive environment or is it applicable to other embedded environments?
Hayden: The VoomPC box sees use in the automotive as well as the industrial markets. The system can take up to three fans to improve thermal management. Customers prefer fanless systems for industrial and harsh environment applications.
Wong: Cases and cooling often go hand-in-hand. What should designers be thinking about when considering Mini-ITX and the use of standard components that you have available?
Hayden: The operating environment for the end-product is critical. Factors to consider include (in order of importance): ambient temperature, particulate levels, humidity, shock and vibration. There are standard cases and components that will work at the extremes of these parameters, but the list narrows quickly. High temperature applications need to consider the CPU power consumption and heat dissipation requirements. Environments with high particulate or humidly levels can take advantage of fanless operation but the ambient temperature needs to be considered. We try to understand the customer's performance and operating requirement when we discuss systems as we recommend a standard or custom solution.
Wong: Many peripherals are common between Mini-ITX applications and PC applications. What are some of the variants or different peripherals that you provide which are used in embedded Mini-ITX applications that are not usually available from PC OEM suppliers?
Hayden: We see the use of many of the standard "inside the box" peripherals as used on a PC, but leveraging a smaller form factor. This may include; 2.5-in. hard drives, a solid state flash drive or an 120W power supplies that measures 1.7 in. × 0.8 in. × 1.2 in. Expansion capabilities exist for PCI, PCMCIA, PCI Express and Mini-PCI. Mini-ITX provides the hooks to support add-on modules to for; LVDS, DVI, LAN, RGB, COM, PCMCIA and additional CPU coolers. This allows for a high degree of application specific system customization.
Wong: What do you foresee for the future of Mini-ITX?
Hayden: The trend for the technology will track semiconductor and fully embedded products: reduced size, increased performance and reduced cost. The trend for market acceptance of the form factor is on the increase. Market studies predict a 20% annual growth rate for motherboard sales with more and more suppliers emerging. Our own data suggests that commercial customers are beginning to see the advantages of the form factor and are driving new development activity.