Ethernet networks—already the standard for office settings—move into the plant

The best approach to passing data between plant-level and enterprise systems—an issue manufacturers have wrestled with for years—could be to simply run a few extra feet of Ethernet cable. At least that's a method now being endorsed by some large IT vendors. “Customers want linked architectures supporting both the office network environment and the factory floor,” says P...

09/01/2007


The best approach to passing data between plant-level and enterprise systems—an issue manufacturers have wrestled with for years—could be to simply run a few extra feet of Ethernet cable.

At least that's a method now being endorsed by some large IT vendors.

“Customers want linked architectures supporting both the office network environment and the factory floor,” says Paul McNab, VP of enterprise marketing for IT networking equipment supplier Cisco Systems . “Both plant and IT managers need secure, real-time visibility between the production floor and ERP, CRM, and supply chain management systems.”

Cisco is addressing this issue in at least two ways:

  • Developing industrial-hardened, Ethernet-ready networking equipment; and

  • Partnering with industrial automation vendors to link plant-floor and enterprise-level IT networks.

On the latter front, Cisco and Rockwell Automation , are developing reference architectures and design guidelines for deploying Ethernet-based production networks that can be integrated with the rest of the enterprise. ( Search mbtmag.com for “Manufacturing intelligence drive capitalizes on Rockwell/Microsoft partnership” for more on alliances. )

Rockwell and Cisco started collaborating on system integration issues as members of ODVA, an international organization devoted to developing a single standard—known as common industrial protocol (CIP)—that enables seamless communication between devices built on different types of plant-floor networks. Their joint efforts around the Ethernet standard builds on a program that Cisco started on its own, called Ethernet to the Factory.

Under this initiative, Cisco offers industrial-hardened, Ethernet-enabled networking switches that it says can be programmed to route the flow of traffic between PLCs and other plant-floor devices according to priorities set by the manufacturer. These switches also keep plant-floor devices running at peak levels while maintaining network security. A second set of Ethernet-enabled Cisco switches can aggregate plant-level data and direct it to higher-level systems.

Craig Resnick, research director at Dedham, Mass.-based ARC Advisory Group , says building Ethernet-based bridges between the plant-floor and office environments is a good response to newly evolving manufacturing business models.

“As manufacturers move into a global business climate that demands the integration of manufacturing operations and business systems, collaboration must move beyond hype to become a commonplace reality,” Resnick says. “Collaboration between Rockwell Automation and Cisco will provide the guidance needed to facilitate plant-floor and IT network integration in a manner that achieves secure connectivity through the use of Ethernet technology.”

Some Rockwell customers say the benefits of industrial Ethernet solutions are readily apparent.

W&H Systems , a Carlstadt, N.J.-based supplier of logistics and material-handling solutions, replaced its Profibus network with one based on Rockwell's Ethernet/IP standard when it purchased a new set of Rockwell PLCs and associated software to automate a product-sorting operation.

With communication speeds up to 10 times faster than Profibus, EtherNet/IP enables significantly higher data transfer rates, says Kevin Kiefer, controls engineer, W&H Systems. “A key advantage of Rockwell Automation's Ethernet-based network is its open design, which allows us to use off-the-shelf components that are low-cost and readily available,” says Kiefer. “This type of plug-and-play functionality speeds installation and simplifies integration issues. Using Ethernet-based I/O shortened design time because the network cabling and hubs are already industry-tested and don't require verification within a new system. Also, the network speed gives the conveyor more precise divert points for significant improvements in routing accuracy.”

Honeywell , too, is embracing the Ethernet standard for automation and control networks. Tim Sweet, manager of product marketing for Honeywell Process Solutions, says customers' general familiarity with Ethernet—which is deployed everywhere from business offices to home-based networks—makes it easy to discuss the option with manufacturing executives, and even plant managers. He says customers get enthusiastic once they learn how fast production-related data can travel across Ethernet-based networks.

“Ethernet is the networking fabric all of our new business is shifting to,” concludes Sweet. “Any customer going through a major company expansion that uses a new distributed control system will demand Ethernet, as will customers building new plants.”





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