Big Apple Transit Apps: Q&A with Chassis Plans
Everything from brake dust to Homeland Security to packing more storage into smaller form factors comes into play for a rugged industrial systems supplier that is successfully leveraging its military background across a wide range of industrial applications.
Michael (Mike) McCormack, president of Chassis Plans, used to see monsters. And not the imaginary kind. During his recent conversation with EECatalog about the factors that led the New York Transit Authority to select his company for a number of its applications, McCormack recalled that as a U.S. Air Force Airborne Communications Engineer, “I saw computers that were huge monsters and now I see that my phone has more processing capability than those computers did.” McCormack made the recollection to support his argument that technology will continue to evolve. That won’t necessarily mean a situation where as it evolves every company has the same technology, he said. But should that happen, according to McCormack, the differentiators will be “service and support and reliability.” Excerpts from the interview follow.
EECatalog: Let’s start with a quick thumbnail of Chassis Plans.
Mike McCormack, Chassis Plans: We are a manufacturer of computer hardware and everything related within that space, so it could be a computer, it could be a single board computer, it could be an LCD display, it could be storage arrays, rugged switches, pretty much anything that you could imagine [as being part of] a computer hardware environment that could be used in a noncommercial environment.
Chassis Plans has a military background and then moved as well into industrial applications such as mass transit, robotics, factory applications, offshore oil and gas, mining—where you are not in a controlled environment.
EECatalog: How are you defining “commercial”?
McCormack, Chassis Plans: Commerical is someplace where the HPs, the IBMs the Dells play. They don’t require a long road map. They don’t require revision control; they don’t require some sort of physical or environmental ruggedness.
EECatalog: Unlike, for example, the systems that the New York Transit Authority contracted with Chassis Plans to provide.
McCormack, Chassis Plans: Yes, the [transit] environment is a lot more challenging. If you are sitting there in a kiosk in New York City, and you’re a single board computer embedded in a ticket kiosk, you might have trouble with that system surviving once it gets up into high summertime temperatures or winter temperatures that are below freezing.
We design systems specifically manufactured to meet that kind of environment [temp extremes] [Chassis Plans systems] have thermal dynamic properties that allow them to survive in a very hot or cold environment, and where you might have dust and dirt at the same time.
EECatalog: What are some of the ways Chassis Plans rugged computer systems are being used by the New York Transit Authority?
McCormack, Chassis Plans: The New York Transit Authority is managing multiple locations of trains throughout its network using some of our computer systems. Those computer systems interface with passenger information systems. We’re driving the displays and monitoring the position of the trains at any given station, so passengers know exactly when their train is going to arrive. Transit applications can encompass everything from testing to security systems to storing information on train location and train operation.
Other areas where we are doing substantial work is on the bridge and the tunnel side. These are independent from the train lines, and they are using a lot of deployable computer systems.
We just designed a transit computer system that needs to be deployed at a moment’s notice with emergency systems and security systems for evacuation. If there is a problem with a bridge or tunnel, they go out to the site with transportable computer systems that must be designed to be deployed. They are going to be taken out of a vehicle, put on the ground and then be able to operate for communication and command and control in an emergency environment.
EECatalog: What are some of the challenges of assuring reliable operation for the applications you’re describing?
McCormack, Chassis Plans: Systems used in cabinets that are not environmentally controlled are subject to brake dust. When you work with that kind of a system you need computer boards that are conformally coated and protected against things like the brake dust and dirt, moisture, etc. that can get into the cabinet or into the server room if not environmentally protected.
At the same time we have the challenge of working with smaller computer systems which are in kiosks and used for security—for monitoring passenger traffic. There is a lot of demand through Homeland Security for monitoring passenger traffic within the train system—and a huge amount of computing required to support that.
EECatalog: What is important to customers in industrial markets when they select Chassis Plans?
McCormack, Chassis Plans: Three critical factors. First, survivability—being able to operate in that extreme environment—cold temperatures, hot temperatures, high humidity. For example, with the New York City and Long Island [NY] locations where our systems are deployed, there are numerous salt fog application zones. With the dust and dirt that occurs as a result of being in a non-environmentally controlled environment, if you don’t have a system that has conformal coated boards, or are not shock mounted, especially with transit applications, then [those systems] are not going to survive more than a few months out in the field.
The second critical factor is revision control. This is something that is very important when you are trying to design a system that is not going to go end of life within a few months. You want revision control that allows a system to be in the field beyond four years and to know that you can support it with spares.
By contrast, when they tool up—the large commercial companies—they are not tooling up for years at a time, they are tooling up for this year’s iteration of their latest motherboard or their latest processor. Let’s say you need to replace the motherboard; you need to replace a processor; you need to replace a drive. A lot of that will go end of life within a few months.
If you are the NY Transit Authority, and you don’t want to have to worry about serviceability and support of these systems for the next five years, you need revision control. Which means you know you are going to get the same system, over and over and over and have it supported for the length of your program.
Chassis Plans gives our customers a very specific part number that is revision controlled, and then we control all of the subcomponents within the system when supply it to them.
Ruggedization is the third factor. It’s not just a plastic front panel, because the system needs to be rugged enough to go in a transit case. We use a lot of high end componentry inside our industrial systems, that means fans that are not 20 to 30 thousand MTBF fans but 100 thousand MTBF fans, which are made with aluminum blocks instead of plastic. It means making sure that every single component in the system is designed to be redundant, as with power supplies, or it’s shock mounted and conformal coated.
EECatalog: How is Chassis Plans capitalizing on technology partnerships as well as on the company’s military heritage?
McCormack, Chassis Plans: We are an Intel Platinum partner and having that partnership and knowing where technology is going from a processor and or storage device is critical to the design and manufacturing firm like Chassis Plans.
Our partnership with Intel enables us to provide leading edge technology that, first of all, gives customers smaller solutions. For example, a small single board computer with 4 terabytes. It’s a lot of processing capability and storage capability in a very small form factor.
Concerning our military background, one of the things that we have vast amounts of experience in, for example, is persistent threat detection. We have been doing storage arrays for a lot of the military applications that support programs like the Predator and that are used on the Kestrel program to support the U.S. Army for convoys in Afghanistan. We’re drawing on our experience with aircraft command and control communications, where they are storing data for 30 to 60 days at a time for other Persistent Threat Detection systems.
We have designed systems that have 50 to 100 terabytes of storage capability for monitoring various applications for very long periods of time—split video, graphics, data. And that has been able to be transferred directly over to what people are trying to do in the mass transit market. For security surveillance, for example, they have to store massive amounts of video recording data on passeger movements.
EECatalog: What approach does Chassis Plans take when working with customers?
McCormack, Chassis Plans: What we try to do when working with our clients is to understand 100 percent of the requirement and meet 100 percent of the requirement, but also, we act as an advisor and take a consultative approach.
A lot of clients will come to us and say, “hey I have seen this spec,” and we’ll pick up straightaway that the specification has gaming and video boards either not supportable or without a product roadmap. We’ll see that the processors they are putting on the board aren’t applicable for the application and we try to provide an advisory or consultative approach based upon our industry partnerships and technical leadership. And in additon to making sure we give them the most comprehensive product specification that covers all their requirements, we want to make sure that the solution is cost competitive and that it is viable for a road map and supported with revision control.
EECatalog: Closing thoughts?
McCormack, Chassis Plans: The strong partnerships we have with our vendors that provide our subcomponents enable us to offer a five-year warranty on our computer systems. When we put a product out there that we designed, we give it a five-year warranty, and I don’t know of any other computer company that does that in the industrial market and provides the level of revision control and customer support that we offer.