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By Mike Bacidore, Managing Editor
New technologies require early adopters to carry them forward. It’s not enough that a new network technology is created and brought to market. What matters is when that technology brings a better solution to specific applications and then begins to see broader use. In 2008, a few things finally rose up and broke through the walls of acceptance.
Ethernet and wireless are not new, but the ways they’re being used are. From power over Ethernet (PoE) and the convergence between manufacturing and IT to interoperability and the protocols and standards that give it shape, some innovations have been around for a while but finally made their marks in 2008.
“I don’t think any innovation will impact the typical engineer the year it’s introduced,” says Stuart McFarlane, vice president, Viewpoint Systems, a system integrator in Rochester, N.Y. “The first year affects early adopters but not mainstream users. However, some technologies will gain market acceptance and penetrate new or retrofit applications. Industrial Ethernet and wireless aren’t new, but I think that they’ll have the biggest impact in the near future—Ethernet because of the interoperability between platforms and wireless for ease of installation. Reduction of wires and therefore installation costs will continue to drive adoption of these technologies. Enabling higher-level information systems to interact with control systems will be a secondary benefit.”
One undeniable trend in today’s manufacturing enterprise is the convergence between traditional information technology systems and manufacturing operations, giving users the opportunity to reduce risks and costs, provide secure access to information and improve agility and overall business performance, explains Brian Oulton, director, networks business, Rockwell Automation. “We worked with Cisco to develop reference architectures and documentation that provide comprehensive, detailed design guidelines for deploying Ethernet in manufacturing areas and connecting it to the enterprise. By using technology and manufacturing standards common between IT and manufacturing, these resources address the cultural and technical challenges of Ethernet network convergence between IT and engineering disciplines.”
Ultimately, manufacturing network convergence can help to align technology with business goals and create the right organization to take advantage of this alignment. “Based on feedback from customers, we’ve noticed that companies progressing toward convergence of their IT and controls-engineering organizations are reaping major benefits,” says Oulton. “These include higher efficiency, increased reliability, shorter project timelines and better business continuity. While there’s no universal solution for manufacturing-IT convergence, manufacturers have been sharing real-time data across the enterprise and value chain, as well as having real-time inventory visibility across the supply chain. By cross-pollinating between IT and controls teams, manufacturers move people between groups through formal and informal cross-training programs.
Manufacturers also have experienced success by co-developing architectures and standards, as well as defining clear ownership of equipment, access rights, decision parameters and other procedures.”
Because of Ethernet’s increasing role in modern manufacturing systems, plant-network engineers can relate more readily to similar IT concerns, too. “Engineers are faced with a new challenge previously reserved for their comrades in IT—network management,” says Phil Fricks, manager, industrial products and services, Hirschmann. “While many excellent network management tools exist, options that fit into an engineers’ toolbox are relatively limited. One solution that addresses this need are industrial profiles. The concept is straightforward—provide read/write access to network information and make it available directly to the control system. These tags are then available for use in the same manner as an I/O chassis, drive or other device. Integrating this data in an HMI/SCADA system for alarms, diagnostics or troubleshooting then becomes very simple.”
Technological innovations such as industrial managed switches address the widespread network convergence trend in manufacturing and IT organizations, adds Oulton. “A noteworthy innovation that promises to change wireless Ethernet is the recent breakthrough of the wireless-n standard, IEEE 802.11n, which is expected to meet many needs in industrial automation using standard, unmodified wireless Ethernet,” he says. “IEEE 802.11n makes wireless faster and better able to process data, thus making it more attractive for high-speed discrete applications. Wireless-n promises to change wireless Ethernet in the same way that full-duplex, 100-Bps changed wired Ethernet, making I/O control mainstream with wireless.”
Where IT and manufacturing really come together is at the diagnostic or troubleshooting stage, especially when the Internet, which falls under IT’s domain, is involved.
“Comprehensive tools in Profinet have established Ethernet as a viable, comprehensive network solution,” says Jeremy Bryant, networking business manager, AMD, Siemens Energy & Automation. “The fact is, Ethernet communications are built into PLCs and other devices, which sets the stage for benefits beyond connectivity. It’s now a simple matter to add Web browsers as standard PLC features. Users can perform diagnostics and troubleshoot PLC information using Internet Explorer instead of special vendor-specific software. The growing number of products and devices designed for Ethernet networks combined with the mass of installations using Ethernet control protocols is proving Ethernet to be the automation network of today and the future. This past year saw manufacturers actually implement many of the technological innovations, such as comprehensive control protocols, released over recent years.”
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