Industrial applications require of special computer designs to withstand dust, vibrations and other extreme situations that would destroy a regular PC. Fanless systems with passive cooling offer the perfect solution for such environments.
The form factor of conventional desktop computers has remained mainly unchanged for a long period now, and although new technologies such as solid state drives are becoming the standard, many moving parts are still found inside their cases. Moving parts translate into noise, power consumption and a higher failure rate.
Probably the most commonly found moving parts inside a computer are fans, used to cool down the systems and keep a good airflow. When a conventional desktop PC is located in extreme conditions, such as restricted airflow areas or dusty environments, developing problems is just a matter of time. Luckily, many OEMs have created solutions tailored to these harsh environments; computers that can withstand dust, humidity and have a very reduced footprint: fanless and fully enclosed computers.
Fanless computers use passive cooling, which is commonly achieved by a combination of fins in the case (usually aluminum) that contribute to cooling by natural convection and heat pipes that take the heat away from the processor surface. This heat pipes are made out of copper, with cooling function by phase change: liquid water in the heat pipes close to the processor evaporates and moves towards the chassis fins where it condenses and gets transported back to the processor surface.
Advantages of fanless systems.
0db on your desk.
If you've read "Jobs", you probably know about Apple's co-founder obsession for making their computers -specially the original Mac- as "Zen" as possible, by means of offering an integrated hardware and software approach, minimizing expansion ports/slots and specially by making them very very very quiet. Fast forward 30 years and you find Apple touting 12dB as the maximum noise generated by their next generation professional desktop offering.
It still remains unclear whether the MacPro will be a successful product or if it will fail just as Next's cube did; however, if what you need is a totally silent industrial-class PC, then a fanless PC will beat the MacPro hands down with and absolute 0dB of noise, assuming, of course, it is also equipped with a SSD for storage.
Energy efficiency and small footprint.
Without the need of extra space for airflow, a fanless PC can be as small as required just to house the internal components. These systems are usually based on mini-ITX motherboards and powered by low energy components, taking no more than a square foot of surface area. The form factor is so small, that this computers can be mounted directly onto a monitor.
With no fans to power and low energy hardware inside, fanless systems typically use less power that larger, air or water cooled systems. Replacing several standard computers with fanless builds can significantly reduce power bills.
Reliability and isolation.
Many industrial systems must be up and running 24/7, making the risk of failure a big concern for IT Managers; this risk increases when moving parts are involved since even small vibrations can damage a fan mounted on bearings. A critical system that goes down for maintenance can cause a loss of thousands of dollars and stop production lines for hours.
Passive heat dissipation eliminates any concern about moving parts failures, but also proves to be ideal in sterile environments where dust and debris associated with fans can cause air quality issues.
Fanned systems can not be completely isolated, but fanless designs can be fully enclosed and therefore suitable for outdoor applications, areas prone to dust accumulation and even high humidity atmospheres.
Is a fanless PC good for you?
Computers are tools, and just like a hammer or a drill, their suitability relies on the task you intend to perform with them.
If you're looking into creating a completely quiet home studio, or want to save some space but can't find any compelling all-in-one model, then you might consider trying a fanless PC. If you are building a HTPC, most likely will also go for a fanless solution, but a custom built one, not a rugged, industrial class one as the scenarios described in this article.
If you are in charge of a production line, manufacturing facility, machine shop, etc. and you have found yourself swapping hard drives in a rush, bringing out of a closet an old backup PC until you fix the one that just went offline, or maybe just have to dust off your computers every second week, then you definitely need to look into fanless PCs. Even though the initial cost is a little bit higher than regular computers (usually start around $1000 or more!) the long term ROI will be greater than you expect in terms of saved maintenance time and guaranteed uptime.