Digital fabrication requires  a workstation; not a PC

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When conversations turn to digital fabrication, what seems to be left out is the computer.

A personal computer, or PC, is a general purpose device that is designed and built for a wide variety of uses such as email, word processing, a bit of video editing, internet searches and the like. They are designed and built as inexpensively as possible, which means that the various components are fairly dependable and fairly easy to service. But they are not meant to operate under heavy processing loads for extended periods of time.

Enter the computer workstation, a technical task oriented device. In the case of a cabinet shop, it is the computing device for designing; generating cut lists, producing tool paths and G-code; and project renderings. The workstation will be on continuously and possibly never turned off except for servicing.

And yes, a workstation will cost more. What you’re buying is reliability, both in exact processing of information and graphics, and better insides.

Though a workstation might look like any old computer, it will be larger and weigh more, and the components will be of much higher quality and there will be more of them. To start, there is the motherboard that connects all of the other components. It will be more robust when compared to a PC motherboard as well as being larger. It will have several central processing units to run the necessary software applications. The CPU may have one or more cores assigned to a given task and time as scheduled by the operating system.

While a PC typically has a 32-bit operating system that can handle four gigabytes of memory, a workstation often has 64-bit operating system with three terabytes of memory – or 3,000 gigabytes. The amount of memory needed for a 3D rendering workstation can vary with the intensity of use, but the rule is the more memory the better. A call to the software developer of the design or CAD program, not the sales rep, can be a starting point in deciding how much memory is needed.

The type of memory used in a workstation is error-correcting code (ECC) that can detect and correct the most common kinds of internal data corruption. This makes sure that errors that inevitably show up in computing for a variety of reasons will be minimized or eliminated. This type of memory is more expensive but worth it.

The last processing competent is the graphics card. In a PC, the graphic processing unit (GPU) is often built into the motherboard, though it can be replaced by adding graphics card. The card enhances color, images and videos. An adequate add-on graphics card for a PC can be purchased for $20 to $100. A workstation requires a 3D rendering card with a high amount of memory and outputs for at least two monitors, costing $500 to $1,000.

When choosing a 3D rendering graphics card, take into consideration the brand of software planned for the workstation. Some software operates more reliably with a given graphics card, whether it is NVIDIA or AMD GPU-chip based. Workstation cards use different software drivers as they are tuned for graphics intensive applications rather than for gaming or general use.

The next component in any computer, PC or workstation, is the storage. For a PC, a 500 GB, 7,200 rpm hard disk is more than adequate, possibly augmented by a 1 terabyte external hard disk. The internal hard disk for a workstation should spin at 10,000 to 15,000 rpm and have 1 to 3 terabytes of capacity.

Backing up any computer is essential, and at least one full on-site and one off-site backup is recommended. Use a backup program that can complete the first total backup and also perform a timed full disk and data backup. Your external hard disk should be at least two to three times larger than the primary hard disk to handle several backups.

One last major internal item is the power supply unit (PSU). Again, a workstation has higher power needs, so a PSU should be of the highest quality and sized properly. You’ll also need an uninterruptable power supply to combat power surges or dips.

Large monitors are easier on the eye and I prefer two 32” monitors at my workstation.

Entry-level, pre-built workstations from Hewlett-Packard and Dell are available for under $1,000, though expect to pay around $2,000 with upgrades, not including monitors.

The extra cost of a workstation and accessories will be paid back with faster, more accurate work on a computer that is more reliable, less prone to errors, and built to last. 

This article originally appeared in the January 2018 issue.

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