Ethernet networks—already the standard for office settings—are moving into the plant

Rockwell Automation and Cisco Systems are collaborating on reference architectures and design guidelines aimed at deploying Ethernet-based production networks that can be integrated with the rest of the enterprise.
By Jim Fulcher, contributing editor August 13, 2007

The best approach to passing data between plant-level and enterprise systems—an issue manufacturers have wrestled for decades—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 tell us they want linked architectures supporting both the office network environment and the factory floor,” says Paul McNab, VP of enterprise marketing for Cisco Systems , the well known supplier of IT networking equipment. “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:

On the latter front, Cisco recently announced an alliance with Rockwell Automation , a leading provider of industrial automation and control solutions. The two companies are collaborating on reference architectures and detailed design guidelines aimed at enabling manufacturers to deploy Ethernet-based production networks that can be integrated with the rest of the enterprise. ( See MBT August 2007 cover story for more on vendor alliances in the automation space .)

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. The vendors’ joint efforts around the Ethernet standard builds on a program that Cisco started on its own, called Ethernet to the Factory.

Obvious benefits

Under this initiative, Cisco offers industrial hardened, Ethernet-enabled networking switches that it claims can be programmed to route the flow of traffic between programmable controllers and other plant-floor devices according to priorities set by the manufacturer. These switches also are supposed to 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.

Cisco executives say working with Rockwell gives them two distinct advantages:

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.”

Cisco Systems is promoting the use of Ethernet as an enterprisewide networking standard by developing industrial-hardened Ethernet-ready switches, and forming alliances with control and automation vendors.

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 and a long-time user of Rockwell Automation solutions, replaced its Profibus network with one based on Rockwell’s Ethernet/IP standard when it purchased a new set of Rockwell programmable controllers and associated software to automate a product-sorting operation.
With communication speeds up to 10 times faster than Profibus, the addition of EtherNet/IP provides significantly higher data transfer rates, says Kevin Kiefer, controls engineer, W&H Systems. And that is just one of the benefits.
“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,” Keifer adds. “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 improved network speed gives the conveyor more precise divert points for significant improvements in routing accuracy.”
Enjoying data speed

Honeywell also embraced 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.
“It allows them to get a lot of data through the pipe quickly,” Sweet says. “The result is that while manufacturers won’t rip out an existing plant networking infrastructure that performs well, Ethernet is the networking fabric all of our new business is shifting to. All new Honeywell products are built on Ethernet. That’s the industry direction because any customer going through a major company expansion that uses a new distributed control system will demand Ethernet, as will customers building new plants.”
Jim Fulcher can be reached at