Q & A with Mathias Beer, Chief Product Officer at Ci4Rail: PICMG’s ModBlox7 Standard

October 20, 2022

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Q & A with Mathias Beer, Chief Product Officer at Ci4Rail: PICMG’s ModBlox7 Standard

PICMG’s ModBlox7 is modular hardware standard designed to help regulate Box PCs. In this Q & A, we’re featuring Chief Product Officer at Ci4Rail, Mathias Beer, to discuss the standard, it’s impact on electronics engineering industry, and the how it provides the flexibility, modularization, and miniaturization needed by the market.

Embedded Computing Design:

How are electronics and the transportation systems evolving? You know, everybody's heard of obviously the IoT and the industrial IoT and industry 4.0, but how does it, something like a train look today versus five, 10, 20 years ago? Or is it largely the same?

Mathias:

So, trains look, from the outside of course, a little bit more futuristic, but what you can really see in the inside that there is much more space for passengers. So, and this has total impact to the electronics, that means miniaturization is key, everything needs to get smaller, smaller, and smaller, because there's so much less room for electronics for cabinets and so on.

So again, 20 years ago, maybe there has only been 19" technologies, so, huge systems doing the job in a very standardized format. Nowadays, it's really small boxes, small, it's somewhere where it's the last free space. Everything goes smaller, and I think this is exactly the right point for the ModBlox7 standard because it is chaos. Every box looks different out there, and train operators and manufacturers, they're really building what's needed.

Embedded Computing Design:

How much electronics are in a train today? How much is that increasing to support requirements?

Mathias:

I think it's increasingly extraordinarily now, and also will in the future. A few years ago, there was a saying and there was also this kind of estimation that a new train today, maybe a high-speed train, has got about 300 different computers. Three hundred different computers being responsible for different jobs within a train, from signaling, train control systems, switches, down to whatever, toilet, control units, seat reservation systems, things like that. So, from a huge variety of idle and non-idle subsystems.

Now, by running into the digitalization, every train nowadays has thousands of sensors, which I would also call engine electronics, so it has massively increased. That sensor data has to be processed, the sensor data has to be collected, and therefore plenty of new applications force plenty of new electronics. So that's why they say it is increasing.

We have, nowadays, applications on a train that 10 years ago nobody had thought about, so it all comes more together. Electronics in a train is communicates with private electronics like mobile phones, tablets, and so on. It all flows together a little bit, and this is, of course, good news for companies like us, because electronics is always growing over average to prevailing market growth.

Embedded Computing Design:

So, you mentioned ModBlox7, what is ModBlox7 and what need is it serving for the industry?

Mathias:

The core idea of ModBlox7 is to combine the advantages of modular systems, which we know very well from the past like CompactPCI, CompactPCI Serial, and VPX, which have great benefits for the customer because they can tailor the system to only the components needed. We would like to combine these modularity advantages with the advantages of box systems, for smaller products, which are, of course, low cost, low weight, low space requirements, high integration.

And this is the first time in the market really the idea of standardizing this. Before, every manufacturer did his own box PCs, he tried to standardize a little bit his own stuff, that maybe another box looked similar to the first box, but over the market there wasn't standardization. And this is ModBlox7.

Embedded Computing Design:

Well it's so incredible to me that there has never been a formal standardization effort around box PCs in the past, given that they're relatively similar. All the ones that you see if you pull out a line card could classify them easily in the same category. Why don't you think there's been any standardization thus far?

Mathias:

What happened in the past is standards on modules, when it comes to modules like CPU modules like COM Express or SMARC, or others like them, have been standardized, and every box PC manufacturer has used these same standards. That's great. I don't know why, but everyone builds his own housing, his own format. Why? I think because of differentiation, and maybe one or the other. I used to work also for an embedded computing company, and you wanted your product to look different, you know, you wanted to have differentiation, you wanted your product to stand out for some reason. Where do the connectors come out, where's the heat sink? Is it more flat? Is it a high design? I don't know exactly why, but I think now the time's right to do this.

Embedded Computing Design:

A lot of these are going into heavy industry applications, so you're talking about low-volume, high-mix, and when you start talking about low-volume, high-mix from a manufacturing standpoint, that's kind of difficult, right? Has that been the case with box PC technology?

Mathias:

Yeah. Of course, but the idea of box PC technology is that it can be used for applications which you create higher quantities, higher volumes. So, really low-volume, high-mix is often, or let's say it's easier to answer with modular systems like CompactPCI. These box PCs address mostly applications with quantity, and with high in the railway sector, we mean hundreds still not 10,000. And of course, every manufacturer tries to create standard products, which can be reused in several projects, and only combine them in a way that, for this low-volume, high-mix, or for this low-volume project, you have the right building blocks already together and stick them together for even a small batch.

And this is, of course, what ModBlox7 addresses perfectly. We as a company have created several power supplies, CPU units, and several I/O units, and we order high quantities of those from outside manufacturers. But I'm able now to configure a specific combination of this for also smaller projects that my customers want, but the customer still participates on my high-volume order to my suppliers. So, modularity is the key to be cost efficient but still be able to answer to specific configurations in a short time.

Embedded Computing Design:

Well, the big question is how do you do that, right? How is ModBlox7 architected so that you can take advantage of some of those economies of scale but still meet the application-specific requirements of not just obviously transportation systems, but box PCs that are going to be deployed in, like I mentioned before, any number of heavy industry applications, right?

Mathias:

This happens from the flexibility coming from modularity, that you define building blocks. We call them units, which do a certain functionality like power supplies. So, we can create rail power supplies, we can create automotive power supplies, or industrial power supplies, and by this standardized, but the standardized interconnectivity between the units, you are allowed to mix up various power supply units or various CPU units to various I/O units.

And by the community of the ModBlox7, it is easy now to say, "Okay, guys, I would like to sell a box to a customer, but I need I/O units from a partner company," and they all fit together because of the interconnectivity, which is standardized by connector, by pin out. So this allows it to be more flexible.

Embedded Computing Design:

What does that mean in terms of form factor, and thermals? They interconnect and the connectivity is standard, but do you have standard everything else?

Mathias:

The inner area of every housing is standardized, so that means every I/O unit and every CPU unit in any of the computers built fits together and fits in this housing. Depending on cooling, it of course depends on the CPU level of the power consumption and so on, and can lead to bigger housing in terms of bigger heat sinks and so on. The main key of the ModBlox7 standard is that the units are interoperable between the manufacturers, and fit all, in every housing. This is the main key. We did not personally standardize the outside dimensions of every box, but the inside dimensions.

Embedded Computing Design:

If you needed to go do an extruded aluminum enclosure for some incredibly rugged deployment, you still have the flexibility to do that with ModBlox7?

Mathias:

It could be done. You might lose the advantage of being able to mount it into a 19" sub-rack, you know, but for example, you can go deeper, you can put the heat sinks in the back if necessary, and still would be able to be mounted in a 19" sub-rack. So yes, you have the flexibility also to create more robust devices, but of course it is not intended to do systems for iPA67 or something like that because this would require also sealing on the front, and then you would lose a little bit the interoperability with other I/O units.

Embedded Computing Design:

The simplicity of it really does give it a lot of flexibility and a lot of promise. I mean, obviously you can expand out, but at its core, it's not incredibly complicated, so it's kind of like an everyman spec.

Mathias:

Yeah, absolutely. Of course, there are some specialties like redundancy and so on, which is great, and necessary for highly-available systems. So far, it is not addressed in the product plans we have right now, but this is something which of course can also bring another cool feature to the standard that can also be used in highly available HA systems in the future.

Embedded Computing Design:

Obviously, a standard has to be developed under some sort of organization. Who's involved and what can you tell us about PICMG and why you chose to develop ModBlox7 there?

Mathias:

So PICMG is hosting the standardization and we have all the participants. PICMG members have been working with PICMG about 20 years or so, and have good experience. We have a lot of standards which have been done through this organization, like CompactPCI, CompactPCI Serial, and the first players, which are now participating in the new ModBlox standard, are also old members of those standards. So, I think it's a well-known standardization organization, and therefore everybody has trust, everybody's sure that they can get it through, and that it also gets enough attention to spread it worldwide.

Embedded Computing Design:

When can we expect to see ModBlox7, a specification ratified, and then also product in the field?

Mathias:

The ModBlox7 standard is planned to be released by end of the year, maybe early beginning of next year. We are still in the process. I think all critical points have been addressed so far. We have the regular two weeks meetings, which progress well. There's still new interested people, new interested companies, which might want to join and see how this works. But I'd say end of the year it's done.

And what I've learned from all of those companies, the feedback from the market is great because of its compactness, its high integration, form factor, and the modularity is really, really appreciated by the market.

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