Fiber optics improve industrial controller communications

Optical fiber cables can answer the challenges of factory automation providing a robust, durable, high-bandwidth multimode means of communications. Termination has gotten easier.

By Natalia Juhasz September 22, 2014

Industrial controller communications may be improved with fiber optic cables. Optical fiber cables can answer the challenges of factory automation providing a robust, durable, high-bandwidth multimode means of communications.

Factory automation has existed since General Motors implemented its automation department in 1947. Since then, companies around the world have been saving time and money using various control systems to improve quality, accuracy, and precision. Today, caught in a wave of smartphones, mobile apps, digital maps, e-tickets, online registrations, and mobile banking, the "good ol’ days" of paper and snail-mail seem to have disappeared. With too much to do in too little time, a growing need for efficiency fuels our insatiable hunger for the cutting edge, dictating the wild rhythm of urgency and immediacy.

Business efficiency, history

The first scientific efficiency standards for business were devised in the early 20th century by the legendary Frederick W. Taylor, who devoted his life to creating and promoting principles of scientific management and addressing competition through unyielding efficiency and improved performance. Taylor was the one of the first management consultants to many prominent firms, including Bethlehem Steel Corp., where he implemented production planning and performed real-time analysis of daily outputs and costs.

Automation of equipment and real-time data-sharing ushered in the next era of unlimited opportunity for improvements in manufacturing and industry. Combining electronics and switching in the 1960s, manual production was increasingly automated through computerization and data-driven decision-making. In 1969, Odo Stuger, longtime Allen Bradley engineer, and Richard Morley, a pioneer in the fields of computer design, automation, and technology trend forecasting, invented the PLC (programmable logic controller), forever advancing industrial automation and firmly embedding the idea of "industrial networking."

Industrial networking, Ethernet

Traditionally, factory networks were administered separately from enterprise networks. Enterprise networks include: e-mail networks, data routing, Internet and intranet servers, and more. In the past, they have communicated to each other via different protocols and different types of routers and switches. The implementation of Ethernet across all network layers allows a fast, reliable, real-time communication of data, allowing for managing and administration from bottom levels of the devices on the factory floor, up to wireless networks in the cloud.

The key advantage of an Ethernet solution is a higher bandwidth of the media carrying the data from the factory floor up to the manufacturing execution system (MES) or enterprise resource planning (ERP) layers of plant-area architecture. 

Fiber optics

Typically, copper cables cannot carry as much data over the network. Optical fiber cables can answer the challenges of factory automation providing a robust, durable, high-bandwidth multimode means of communications.

The factory floor often requires stability through varying harsh environments. Fiber optic cables can withstand:

  • Widely fluctuating temperatures from -20 to +105 C (-4 to + 221 F)
  • High vibration
  • Exposure to common industrial oils and chemicals
  • Exposure to severe electrical noise
  • Situations where time for connector training is minimal
  • Installations where technicians are not expert in optical fiber.

Termination of fiber optics can often waste time, so easy field termination capabilities are appreciated. Simple steps for field termination of fiber optic breakout cables involve:

  • Stripping the water-blocked outer jacket material
  • Crimping the connector directly onto the fiber optic coating for strong, solid connector retention
  • Cleaving to create an optical finish on the fiber, using the special precision cleave tool with a diamond blade. This crucial, but simple step creates a near-perfect optical surface for low connector insertion loss. The cleaving step eliminates the tedious need to polish the fiber end-face.

Through this process, the messy adhesives or polishing equipment have been removed and the connectorized cable is ready to transmit at fast and gigabit Ethernet data rates.

– Natalia Juhasz is marketing analyst at OFS Optics; edited by Mark T. Hoske, content manager, CFE Media, Control Engineering,