3 Risks to Using an Off-the-Shelf Single-Board Computer

Single-board computers are convenient for development, but be careful deploying these as production hardware systems. Here are some important risks to using off-the-shelf single-board computers.

19 August 2021

Today’s product development cycles have gotten shorter, and cross-functional design teams need to work fast to get new products to market and stay competitive. Given the pressure on today’s design and development teams, developers may be tempted to adapt an off-the-shelf solution, such as a single-board computer, into a production environment. Single-board computers are very useful tools, and some of these systems have become so popular that they now see widespread use in production.

Despite the popularity of many single-board computers, there are some risks associated with using off-the-shelf products as production grade solutions. Before adapting these products into a production environment, designers should balance the benefits of expedited development with the constraints imposed by these platforms and consider the risks involved in using off-the-shelf hardware.

Off-the-Shelf Single-Board Computers: Risks and Challenges

Off-the-shelf hardware, including single-board computers, gives product developers a very convenient way to quickly deploy a new embedded system. In particular, off-the-shelf single-board computers can help expedite the embedded development process, and some off-the-shelf products are widely used as production-grade hardware. These off-the-shelf solutions are excellent for systems designers who need to experiment with application options, peripherals, and integration with other systems.

Why would developers use an off-the-shelf single-board computer platform in production? By leveraging a proven hardware platform, developers can speed up deployment as nearly all of the core electronics design tasks are eliminated. By eliminating the hardware design portion of the project, developers can focus on designing applications on these platforms, testing and debugging critical functions, and creating the best user experience without getting distracted by hardware design tasks. If executed correctly, these platforms can help a company get to market quickly and solve critical problems for their customers.

Before using an off-the-shelf solution, product development teams should consider the risks of these platforms in a production environment before deploying them en masse.

No Control Over Hardware Revisions

In the event your solution requires some type of hardware revision to remain safe, reliable, and function, developers will have no control over implementing these revisions or the lead times involved. The lead time between revisions could be unacceptable or could be announced totally by surprise. In particular, the supplier may release a surprise revision that addresses a critical functionality or safety issue in your product, but you may be unable to capitalize on this if your solution is already deployed at high volume. This lack of control over hardware revisions creates unacceptable business risk and motivates development of a custom hardware solution.

Adaptability and Reliability

Single-board computers are not intended for deployment in certain environments, such as in noisy power systems, industrial environments, harsh environments found in automotive or aerospace, any area at significant risk of thermal/mechanical shock or ESD. Only specialty high-reliability single-board computers are useful in this area, which have limited selection and carry high costs. Most off-the-shelf platforms will not meet IPC reliability standards or other standards (UL, FCC, etc.) in these high-reliability application areas. Again, this motivates the use of a custom hardware platform that can be produced to specific industry requirements and produced at scale.

Off-the-Shelf Hardware Costs

Some off-the-shelf single-board computers have low per-unit cost, making them a superior option for reducing development and prototyping costs during application development and debugging. However, these costs are generally fixed, even at high volume. Product designers will also have no control over the supply chain for the product and must accept the price point listed by the supplier. If an off-the-shelf solution is to be deployed at high volume, the costs of off-the-shelf hardware can quickly become untenable compared to a custom designed and manufactured solution.

Should Off-the-Shelf Single-Board Computers Be Used in Production?

While off-the-shelf single-board computers are very useful for application development, field prototyping, testing and debugging, and experimenting with hardware integration, the risks of production deployment limit their usefulness. The benefits of fast deployment may be outweighed by the above risks when an off-the-shelf system is put into production. Because there are some risks involved in deploying an off-the-shelf solution in a production environment, developers should carefully consider how the constraints imposed by off-the-shelf hardware will limit agility.

Companies that are considering an off-the-shelf platform should partner with an experienced EMS provider that can help qualify the platform for production use. This can include EMI testing, enclosure producibility, compliance with important standards like UL, reliability testing for harsh environments, and much more. In some cases, the best course of action may be to clone the hardware platform while addressing some of its major drawbacks through improved design. In other cases, a totally custom platform will be the best option to satisfy form factor, function, cost, and application requirements.

OEMs that want to ensure high quality and yield should partner with an experienced EMS provider. We have more than 30 years of EMS experience focused in consumer goods, industrial, automotive, and medical devices, as well as in Printed Circuit Board Assembly (PCBA) and box builds. Our Lean Six Sigma manufacturing expertise enables us to customize our manufacturing line to meet our partners’ requirements.

If needed, we provide our customers the flexibility needed to quickly scale production as needs arise. We provide our partners with high-quality products at lower manufacturing costs thanks to our shorter change-over time and leaner material control. Contact PCI today to learn more about our capabilities.