Building an Embedded Computer

Published on:
November 13, 2012
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Building an Embedded ComputerTo build, or not to build, that is the question. A trite little play on words, but where the embedded computing industry is concerned that little ad lib really is a question of some interest.

So we find ourselves in a situation where we need an embedded computer. We know what the product has to do and we’ve got a whole list of specs that are to be adhered to if it’s going to work in the finished product. At this point we are confronted with these questions, followed by a torrent of others:

  • Should we get an off-the-shelf, completed unit?
  • Should we go for a barebones system or completely custom?
  • Can we get all of the specs we want?
  • And most importantly, what is cheaper?

There are a lot of factors in this decision. Not to be ambiguous or shy away from a straight answer; rather, there are certain circumstantial factors that vary from case to case. So, in this blog I’m going to focus on building an embedded computer from scratch, and by the end of it you should have a good idea of what to settle on. If you need more info, I also wrote a short blog on barebones systems that will shed more light on the situation.

And, always feel free to shoot me a line if you’re still fuzzy on any details.

Embedded Computing from Scratch

Building an Embedded ComputerDesigning an embedded computer from scratch can be an extremely satisfying endeavor. But being business and engineering minded alike, it’s going to take a little bit more than that in order to make us bite.

I’m talking about the specs. And this is where the custom build shines.

Pico ITX motherboard, waterproof, fanless case, a -40 ~ +80 temperature rating; you can have whatever specs you want when you go the custom route. This is by far, the most appealing characteristic of a custom system. Nobody wants to give up all the specs they want. When you go the custom route, you don’t have to. This can go as far as board-level ODM changes with a custom part number and a fanless custom chassis designed to be a heatsink, all run by an Ivy Bridge processor. It could also be a simple as a cheap aluminum case with a commercial board and an atom processor.

The point is, when it comes to building a custom embedded computer, the sky is the limit. And if you are partnered with a distributor who really knows their stuff, you don’t even need to put much work into it. They can track down the product and assemble it for you. The lead times may be slightly longer, but with proper planning the distributor can keep this to a minimum.

It All Comes Down to the Bucks

In the end, the largest factor is money. But, this is where things get interesting. On average, when you factor in the NRE and assembly costs, the custom computer will usually be more expensive than the completed system. However, a custom system can actually be designed to be cheaper than the off-the-shelf, completed system. How is this possible?

I alluded to it earlier when I mentioned getting a cheap aluminum case and consumer board. You can also remove components from a motherboard, with no NRE cost, thus reducing the price of the motherboard. The list of moneysaving tips goes on.

Make Building an Embedded Computer a Cinch

Embedded ComputersThe way to take the time and effort out of the project is to get a distributor who is specifically tailored to the industrial OEM market. They can source and distribute every product that you need, effectively eliminating the logistics problems consequent to hopping around to different distributors for the various components for your device. The second thing that they can do is assemble your device for you. That last may come as a surprise, but the Embedded Computing industry has been growing for over a decade and this has given a lot of time for distributors to tailor their services for OEMs. This is by no means a “common” characteristic in a distributor; they’re sparse, but they’re out there. Make use of them.

Building a custom computer can give you the perfect machine for your project; adhering to every spec that you could ever want. Conversely, it can provide you with a machine that is far cheaper than the competition. A custom embedded computer can be an excellent resource, so don’t write it off.

New Era Electronics Brian LuckmanBrian Luckman is the President of New Era Electronics. He has worked in the industrial OEM market for over 25 years, serving a variety of different industries, gaining a strong reputation for his expertise and a thorough understanding of how to properly service OEM customers. In 2000 he began New Era Electronics and the company continues to grow. He’s a husband and father and enjoys exploring the outdoors.
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