A recent survey of electronics design engineers conducted by portable memory specialist Nexus GB has shown that industry is beset with problems resulting from the use of consumer memory in specialist and industrial applications. Here Victoria Barrett, the company’s PR and marketing director, looks at the ways that industrial memory can be employed by OEMs seeking to obviate the problems consumer memory can create.
First, let me establish what I mean by consumer memory and industrial memory. The former category includes USB sticks, SD cards and similar products as well as other portable memory devices that are really designed for use as IT peripherals. In contrast, industrial memory products are designed for use by OEMs and are portable, rugged and fit for purpose. The problem is that many designers simply aren’t aware that industrial memory is an option; they design-in consumer memory because they think it is the only choice.
Indeed a staggering 70% of the respondents to our survey claimed to have experienced problems due to one or more of the three leading factors it identified; obsolescence, lack of compatibility between products from different manufacturers and loss of data due to unreliable connectors.
More to the point, these problems are all more likely to take effect the longer a product has been in circulation. As a result, I believe that continued inappropriate use of consumer style memory products in industry could create a legacy of technical issues for forthcoming generations of design engineers to face.
It’s bad enough if one of these factors affects your product when it’s launched or within a couple of years of it being in production. However, it’s much worse if it comes into play further down the line when you might find that a complete re-design is required. This could be due to a combination of obsolescence with another factor such as changes in memory standards, for instance. This is where rectifying the issue can become really expensive.
Anecdotal evidence from Nexus GB’s customer base over the years has turned up several examples of the issues the survey highlights de-railing OEM’s projects. One customer contacted us the day they launched their own product because, on the same day, they had received a letter from the consumer memory manufacturer requesting a ‘last time buy’ order before production ceased! Sadly, in the consumer memory world, Moore’s law makes this inevitable.
According to the idea outlined by Gordon Moore in 1965, computer chips double their output every eighteen months. This is true of consumer memory, where the need to store and play increasingly large files such as high resolution photographs, films and games means that we demand a huge capacity from the USB on our key ring.
As a design engineer working on a portable data application it is possible to avoid the problems inherent in consumer memory by selecting the right products. The first thing to look for is memory that is guaranteed to work in the OEM device. While consumer memory may fit physically, it may not work for any one of countless technical reasons. As a result, the design engineer using consumer memory should pre-qualify those products on the market that do work. This eliminates perhaps the most compelling reason to use consumer memory - widespread availability.
For instance one factor to watch out for is changing standards. History shows that USB and SD ‘standards’ are driven by the consumer market and changes can adversely affect embedded OEMs who adopt the products. For instance SDHC cards use a different addressing method to SD cards, meaning embedded devices using SD can’t also use its successor, even though they fit in the connector.
Next, one should look for longevity in the product life cycle. The right industrial memory product is guaranteed to offer substantially better longevity because industrial manufacturers understand that your product may need continual maintenance over a long period.
Another important consideration is the choice of a controlled connector so that only approved products fit. If you design in USBs or camera cards, users can plug in untested and unqualified consumer memory. This isn’t the case with a specialist memory key or token.
This point highlights the fact that there are cases where secure and rugged industrial memory can find a home in an application where one might usually use a high street USB stick. Just ask the Government departments who have lost crucial client data over the last couple of years by moving it around the country on a CD, memory card or USB!
There is a case for larger organisations investing in adapting their machines to work with a secure reader and data token so that, even if the data is lost, it can’t be read by anyone else. As well as improving data security, this could reduce the amount of viruses that affect a system and would benefit those businesses that currently buy PCs without disc or CD drives for exactly this reason.
Using the right form factor can also give other benefits. It can discourage theft because USB drives and SD cards are targets for light fingered employees but a stock design from a specialist portable memory supplier isn’t. If there is the possibility of product or data theft in your application, this should be an important consideration.
The next consideration is simply choosing the right amount of memory. If your application only requires 4MB, there is no need to buy a device that provides 32GB. As with all design engineering projects, over specification can be expensive.
In addition, one should always consider the operating environment the end user will be working in as well as the data they need to take into that environment. Both the memory device and the mating receptacle may need to be immersion rated or produced for a specific temperature, shock rating or ESD (Electro Static Discharge) rating.
Furthermore, the mating life cycle should be triple checked. If your product is used ten times a day, a typical USB connector will only last five months. This may be great for the spare parts business but it will leave your end users pretty unhappy! Always ensure that the usable life cycle of the product matches its predicted usage.
Finally, you should check the product support for industrial OEMS if you do opt for a consumer style product. Consumer memory manufacturers focus on consumer OEMs and industrial memory manufacturers on industrial work, so it’s vital that you match your own organisation to the manufacturer correctly.
When one summarises the actions required to avoid the issues our survey highlighted, it’s easy to see why we are an industry beset with memory problems. After all, the reason we are designing memory into the application in the first instance is the data or functionality that the memory device contains. The device itself is secondary to the ultimate function, which makes it ironic that the use of consumer memory can create so many problems, while the stress free alternative of industrial memory often remains in the shadows.