Industrial electronics refers to a range of equipment, processes and tools that require electrical equipment within an industrial setting. These applications are wide spread and can include electronic control panels, sensors, transformers, high powered devices, to name just a few. The industrial sector has been incorporating increased levels of electronic applications in recent years, utilising automation and smart technologies, which allow for remote working and enhanced data analysis, thus improving accuracy and efficiency of production lines, plants, etc. Consumer electronics incorporate devices that are intended for private use in the home and typically include items such as mobile phones, smart TVs and white goods. The global consumer electronics industry continues to produce a diverse and complex range of products as technology evolves. It has been reported that the global consumer electronics market is estimated to reach US$ 838.85 billion by the end of 2020*. Even with the effects of the current global pandemic, the consumer electronics market will, without doubt, continue to grow and with consumer habits turning more to home-based entertainment, the increased use of such devices will lead to further demands in this industry sector as users frequently review and update their hardware.
There is an inevitable cross over between these two industries and a design engineer must consider the environment the electronics will operate in as well as factor in these requirements at the design stage. Simply identifying whether the electronics are for the industrial or consumer market can often determine the harshness of the environment in which the device must operate and the degree of reliability required. For instance, a control panel that is managing many parameters in a production line, such as control of speed, safety cut-off requirements, temperature management, etc. will need to be extremely reliable, as any glitches could cause massive cost or even have dramatic safety implications. Consumer electronics also have high demands when it comes to safety, for example, a smoke alarm must be equally reliable whether it is being used commercially within business or within the home. However, there are other factors that are much more prominent for consumer electronics, most of which are based around the trade-off between performance and price as well as the levels of expectation driven by brand reputation.
As a general rule, consumer electronics operate in less demanding environments. This can result in lower specification electrical components, different materials for housing and also alternative choices regarding the thermal management or environmental protection of the device. However, with the increased expectation of higher quality brands and the diversifying of electronics into new applications, such as the smart watch, the reliability of consumer electronics remains of high importance. Differences between these industries can therefore be subtle but are in no means insignificant. The correct choice of electrochemical product can be the difference between high reliability, desired performance and longevity of a device. These nuances between the two industries shall be discussed further, looking at a range of electrochemical products and how the choice of such products compares between these two industry sectors.
Firstly, we shall discuss the protection of electronic devices from their environment. Finished electronics (whether for industrial or consumer applications) tend not to handle adverse conditions well. As soon as there is potential for the PCB to be exposed to humidity, contaminants, moisture, mould, dust or chemicals, there is potential for corrosion, component failure or worst case, device failure. Generally speaking, there are two classes of protection compound that can help to avoid such failures from occurring; conformal coatings and encapsulation resins. Conformal coatings are available in different chemistry options, thus providing a variety of protection levels. Their versatility leads to many uses within the consumer electronics market, offering basic level protection from dust to enhanced protection for safety critical devices. These coatings conform to the contours of a PCB providing protection from harsh environments, with minimal impact on the weight or geometry of the device. This is also important for the industrial electronics industry, where the size or spacing of a device may be such that only a few microns of coating can be applied to offer protection.
In industrial applications, the environmental conditions are much wider spread and so the term ‘harsh conditions’ is typically more appropriate here. Some examples of conformal coating use, to illustrate the difference between the two sectors, include a fuel forecourt, where on the ground, the conditions are quite harsh, with the potential of a chemical spill, flammable or explosive conditions and frequent, heavy traffic. The requirements for electronic devices in these applications are strict and even when you move off the forecourt, the challenges still exist. Consider the LED lights used to display the prices for fuel. These boards are tall, with the electronics well off the forecourt, however, for safety reasons it is often required to coat the electronics to prevent breakdown or failure due to the flammable materials close by. Additionally, the forecourt can produce a lot of fumes and therefore a coating that can resist gaseous chemical attack and prevent corrosion on the PCBs is required. In comparison, a consumer electronics application may provide short term water resistance, with ultra-thin layer coatings such as Electrolube FPC, to protect a mobile phone accidently dropped in the kitchen sink. Or perhaps a higher level of protection is required, using a versatile acrylic conformal coating, such as Electrolube AFA, to coat control panels in white goods, protecting from high moisture or cleaning chemical ingress. This illustrates that chemical resistance may also be required in consumer electronic applications, especially in the case of outdoor applications such as an automatic gate, where slugs, snails and other critters enjoy making a new home inside electronic casings of control panels! It is surprising the extent of protection required for electronics around the home!
Encapsulation resins are designed for the same purpose but offer additional protection from vibration damage, thermal shock and more frequent/continuous exposure to chemicals. By fully encapsulating the device, additional protection from physical elements can be provided and this can be vital in some industrial applications. Consider the electronics used in heavy construction equipment and the impact and vibrations caused by the nature of the work carried out. If we think of road laying equipment, for example, and the high specifications required when laying an F1 race track. The machinery used to complete these tasks will be fitted with sensors for both safety and performance, and all of these sensors need protection from flying debris and large vibrations. In such applications, a soft polyurethane resin, such as Electrolube’s UR5044 can offer protection, vibration dampening and UL approval, all in one product. Now we’re moving into the real differences between industrial and consumer electronics. Comparing these conditions with those of a toothbrush charger or an LED driver in the home couldn’t be much further apart in terms of the in-use environments of the electronics. In the home, we are looking for water resistance for our toothbrush charger; it needs to be safe when plugged in and accidently left sitting in a small pool of water on the bathroom side. The LED drivers need good heat dissipation to ensure the LEDs operate efficiently and have a long life. The requirements for encapsulation resins are still prominent for consumer electronics but the conditions they operate in are what sets them apart.
Continuing with the theme of protection from the environment, any static or moving contacts on electrical devices should also be considered. Contact lubricants are specially formulated greases and oils, designed to reduce friction and wear and enhance electrical performance of current carrying metal interfaces, such as those found in switches and connectors. These specialist greases form a barrier to guard against oxidation and corrosion caused by fretting and contact, ultimately extending the contact life. Industrial electronics benefitting from the use of contact lubricants can easily be found within transport, data communications, signal transmission, instrumentation, measuring and control and perhaps most predominantly, automotive.
With electronic products becoming more mobile, an increase in the use of docking stations and chargers has been seen. As a result there are more contacts open to the environment. In certain applications, such as household or garden tools, these docking stations may be situated in a garage or outbuilding and may be exposed to a higher level of moisture than those kept inside the home. In addition, if the application is in a coastal region, salt mist from the surrounding sea can cause major issues with electronic components, particularly exposed contacts. The use of a contact lubricant helps to protect against the corrosive effects of the environment and ensures good connection every time. This results in improved efficiency of charging, reliability of the device and a prolonged lifetime. This type of application can be compared to an industrial oven for example. With electronic control panels built in, the surrounding environment can get very hot and humid. Just like in the docking station, the use of a contact lubricant, such as Electrolube’s CTG, can help to protect the contact surface and reduce the effects of corrosion and wear.
Protection doesn’t have to be in the form of a layer covering a surface, it can also mean protection from thermal influences by effectively managing the dissipation of heat away from components or devices. In essence, this is what thermal management products are designed to do and cost-effective solutions are an ever-growing demand of the electronics industry, particularly as PCBs become more densely populated, supporting a wider range of functions and thereby producing more heat in a smaller space. Design engineers have the challenge of balancing cost, performance and reliability and, as previously mentioned, this is intrinsically linked to the end application – i.e. consumer or industrial. Thermal management applications can include improving the efficiency of heat transfer at the interface between a component and a heat sink to larger gap filling applications between a PCB and a casing. Either way, the object is to eliminate air and effectively dissipate the heat away from critical areas, ultimately improving the performance and lifetime of the device.
In industrial applications, power electronics and electric vehicle batteries are just some examples where thermal management is key to the success of the device. Without proper thermal management in electric vehicle batteries, the efficiency and battery life are greatly reduced. Thermal gap fillers, such as Electrolube’s GF400, can be used to fill large spaces between cells, eliminating heat and improving thermal transfer. In consumer electronics, the use of thermal management products can depend on the design of the individual item and therefore varies from product to product. When considering thermal interfaces between a component and a heat sink, the distance between the two surfaces, temperature fluctuations and requirement for an adhesive product all need to be considered. There are many thermal interface applications within consumer electronics, one example is the wide use of thermostats to regulate the operating temperature of devices such as vacuum cleaners and hair dryers. By ensuring efficient heat transfer, the thermostat achieves a more accurate reading of the temperature and thus, can respond as required with the data gathered. Thermal management therefore has a huge role to play within both industrial and consumer electronics across a wide variety of applications.
Regardless of the type of protection required, the environment in which the device has to operate is of critical importance for both device performance and safety reasons. Air gaps can result in a reduction of heat transfer; oxidation can occur due to high temperatures or mechanical failures, corrosion results from exposure to high humidity, salt mist or chemicals. Whether the application is in the industrial or consumer electronics sector, these environmental influences need careful consideration and correct selection of electrochemical products can be the difference between an efficient, high performing device and a failed product.