Turn-key PCB assembly services in prototype quantities or low-volume to mid-volume production runs

Rugged electronics for extreme conditions

Electronics get more and more advanced every day. There is a constant growth in processing power, storage and operating memory, bigger and thinner displays, and faster communications. You’ve probably got disappointed many times when your lovely laptop fell off and cracked, your cell phone drowned in the toilet, or other devices failed because of some factors. Even low temperature or pressure may stop the device from responding. This happens because devices aren’t meant to work in extreme conditions. You can get a computer or cell phone with hardened cases sealed from water, but does this make them rugged?

complex rugged electronic device
(Rugged integrated system solution MPMC-9350)

Let’s look at another extreme side – space. A good example is the Mars rover “Curiosity.” You would think that with today’s technologies, it could have almost a supercomputer running on board, but actually, its processing power is less than any modern cellphone. Actually, the rover has two computers onboard where each of them has 256kB of EEPROM, 256MB of DRAM, and 2GB of Flash memory. RAD750 CPU runs up to 400MIPS. Any smartphone would beat that easily. So, where is the problem? The problem is extreme conditions – low and high temperature, high accelerations during landing, radiation. Electronics must withstand these conditions as once fire them with the rocket. It must not fail – there will be any human to service any part. So, in this case, scenario electronics is extremely rugged. Another good example of rugged electronics surrounding us is car electronics. You can find that that it is partially protected from moisture and vibrations. You can find many sensors under the hood that seem to be no complex but are housed in a metal case with rubber seals.

But there is another area of electronics on earth that should never fail or at least be maximum reliable – that’s military and aircraft electronics. It would be silly to get drone system failure in the enemy area or loose navigation during jet flight. Most military and defense systems tend to be modernized. There is always a game of who has better technology to win a war. Better, faster, and reliable electronics always gives an advantage. There are special companies like “CWC Defense Solutions” that specializes in military-grade products. They do ruggedized electronic modules that keep aerospace and defense systems spinning. Let’s see how rugged electronics look like. For instance, Curtiss -Wright Controls Inc. selects the best commercial parts available and builds rugged electronics modules that withstand extreme temperatures, vibrations, and corrosion. Making them rugged means making solder joints reliable and double-checked using x-ray. If electronics are sealed, then cooling is another big concern that has to be solved. Processors generate huge amounts of heat, so it has to be effective in any hazardous environment. If not air-cooled, then electronics is conduction-cooled. This is where mechanical engineering kicks in, ensuring a reliable thermal bridge between the board and the chassis. Selected materials must be selected to withstand thermal, corrosive conditions. There is not much design concern but more packaging and longevity of life.

Special care is taken when developing software. Extensive testing is crucial. As you know, sometimes there is more software than hardware that can fail. This is not mass use electronics, and it wouldn’t be possible to manufacture large amounts of rugged and reliable electronics. Practically each manufactured module needs to be machine-human checked, tested in hazardous environments, pass shock and vibration tests to get a certificate, and be ready to be used in the field.

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