Industrial Ethernet moves into mainstream, mission-critical applications

It wasn't that long ago that Ethernet was viewed as an office, not a plant, technology. However, business, economic, and technical factors have driven industrial Ethernet into the mainstream of mission-critical applications. This ubiquitous communications technology—allowing commercial and industrial networks to be connected or combined—enables manufacturers and utilities to close t...

03/01/2006


Networks & Communication

Majority of respondents report favorable experience with industrial Ethernet in mission critical applications. Some 40% of respondents plan to extend the use of Ethernet in production operations; however 24% of respondents much preferred Ethernet over fieldbus communications, but aren’t planning to expand its use.

It wasn't that long ago that Ethernet was viewed as an office, not a plant, technology. However, business, economic, and technical factors have driven industrial Ethernet into the mainstream of mission-critical applications. This ubiquitous communications technology—allowing commercial and industrial networks to be connected or combined—enables manufacturers and utilities to close the gap between business and mission-critical systems.

Businesses' information technology staffs are very familiar with Ethernet. Benefits flowing from the Internet—and modern network designs—include:

  • Ease of remote or local product installation using HTTP server and browser technology set up, re-configuration, and status monitoring;

  • Device problem resolution with diagnostics using SNMP, FTP, peer-to-peer, or HTTP technology, and analysis of memory dumps, download programs to random-access- (RAM) or flash-memory;

  • Use of the HTTP server to gather a plethora of device information; and

  • Availability of reports and network planning for management.

Current technology allows reliable access to plant-floor PLCs without regard to proprietary vendor software. Going forward, expect additional reliable access to plant-floor devices, such as motor controls, photo sensors, and robots.

However, the most obvious end-user concern is the physical system. Will the combined network hardware and structured cabling system be sufficiently robust? Industry-wide organizations, such as ODVA, Profibus International, and others, provide guidance for industrial-grade versions of typical data-communications products. Hardened industrial switches, when designed properly, can cope with an industrial environment. Temperature and chemical resistance, vibration resistance, and ability to withstand wash-down, are keys to a connector's survival on the factory floor.

In a recent benchmark survey conducted by Aberdeen Group and Control Engineering , 80% of respondents say industrial Ethernet is currently being used in the manufacturing control platform at their companies/plants for mission-critical industrial purposes. Additionally another 8% plan to use it within the next 18 months, while 12% say they have no plans to implement it. Respondents represent companies worldwide in process and discrete industries.

Mainstream acceptance of the use of industrial Ethernet is clear for many mission-critical applications. This is partly motivated by the attractive value proposition of unification of the communications infrastructure for the industrial control network and the broader networking environment of business systems and the Internet. This certainly enables business and plant-floor systems to communicate more easily, opening the door to many new applications and opportunities. Another significant advantage cited in the marketplace is the ability to leverage commercial Ethernet components, which typically are lower cost than traditional control-network elements.

However, along with these benefits come new challenges. Beyond potential technology concerns lies the organization. Where do companies develop expertise to design and manage Ethernet infrastructure to ensure a reliable and safe environment for the plant floor? Certainly industry associations can be a resource, as can internal IT professionals. Moreover, vendors can provide insight, albeit with a perspective that can be commercially biased. So, in the final analysis, a manufacturer must have its own plant-floor leadership to mesh the information, techniques, and products available from the foregoing disparate sources, whether they lie in office or industrial environments.

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