High-powered embedded computing equipment utilizing the Air Transport Rack (ATR) form factor is playing an ever-larger role in extreme, mission-critical applications in air, land, and sea environments. This compact, rugged, and light form factor has been around for nearly 70 years. Its small size meets the tight space constraints of the current generation of military grade equipment, and its flexibility, coupled with the proliferation of commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) components, allows ATR-based systems to meet cost and upgradeability goals for both legacy and emerging systems.

ATRs, typically used in aircraft, are increasingly being deployed in wheeled and tracked vehicles, and used in shipboard applications. Each application is subject to its own array of harsh environmental factors including shock, vibration, temperature, moisture and salt, that need to be taken into consideration. The ATR has been introduced into applications never before imagined, including surveillance, data collection and storage, and weapons control.

As computing power has increased, however, and ATRs are used in more strenuous avionic and military applications, performance requirements for ATR designs have steadily increased as well. This creates a challenge for systems designers working within the COTS framework. Each new application brings additional requirements that, if developed as custom solutions, would lead to unacceptably long development times. These requirements include variations in size and weight, exterior and aesthetic features, I/O and cabling, power supply and performance characteristics, and thermal management.

After considering these points, it's clear that customization is no longer the exception, but rather the norm, and measures must be taken to ensure that customers receive a solution that meets their unique needs in a timely manner.

The Problem of Mass Customization

Factors to consider when designing a configurable ATR
Manufacturing firms in many industries are experiencing a growing need for so-called "mass customization," sometimes referred to as the long tail. This concept has primarily been used to understand the evolution of consumer markets. The idea is that while a product with a single configuration of features may satisfy a large part of the market, market growth is to be found in the long tail of the demand curve, which is usually composed of a collection of micromarkets with specific needs.

In fact, as the understanding of these sub-markets grows, manufacturers are discovering that they can better meet the needs of all their customers by offering multiple options, so customers have to accept fewer compromises.