Modern manufacturing is all about innovating with digital prototyping and technologies like 3D printing – all of which require a high degree of raw computing power.
Workstations are ideal for providing this resource, where their large processing power can crunch complex formulas and graphics, while a screen provides a valuable visual interface for an engineer or operator.
For many years, the engineering workstation was a device category in its own right. Distinct from regular home and business PCs, the workstation was designed and built for high-end computation and graphics applications and included:
64-bit processors (when PCs were 32-bit).
Large amounts of enterprise-grade memory.
Discrete graphics capability.
Plenty of local storage.
In addition to the high-end hardware, workstations were also characterised by their Unix operating systems in a world where most people used Windows. As PC technology matured, 64-bit CPUs became a standard and applications were ported to Windows, Mac OS X and Linux.
Nowadays a workstation is functionally equivalent to a high-end desktop, but with more grunt and raw processing power for high end, resource hungry applications.
Why workstations still matter
With workstations now readily available, CIOs must evaluate the use cases for workstations and how they can complement ubiquitous mobile computers. In manufacturing, the business case for workstations remains solid.
1. Processing power, memory, and storage
The processing power, memory, and storage of workstations are superior to portable computers, and this is important where the immediacy of operational parameters is crucial. Workstations can also be "clustered" to deliver far greater performance than regular PCs.
2. High-end graphics
The high-end graphics capability and large display options of workstations make them well suited to manufacturing where visual design is monitoring are central to operations.
3. Digital prototyping
Manufacturing is moving from traditional physical prototyping to the new era of digital prototyping. Products are designed then tested in a simulated environment using the materials’ known properties. Using workstations for digital prototyping can significantly reduce production costs and the time to market.
Workstations have the added advantage of being able to be locked down and located in control rooms away from sensitive manufacturing equipment. Many manufacturing operations restrict mobile devices on site for reasons of fire safety and interference protection.
5. A complete environment
Windows, Linux, and Mac workstations still have the best support for the widest range of manufacturing and engineering applications. Mobile device platforms are catching up, but the platform support and user experience of workstations is a much more complete environment than what portables offer.
The engineering workstation is alive and well in digital manufacturing and continues to offer a strategic advantage over other computing options. It's up to CIOs and IT managers to put them to best use, to ensure their operation remains innovative, productive and cost-effective.