It might seem like a contradiction at first, but at the same time that machines and production lines are being divided into separate modular elements, they're also being more closely tied together by networking technologies, such as Ethernet, fieldbuses, wireless and enabling components.
"The real push for more capable networking is coming from machine builders who want to decrease assembly time and users who want to decrease downtime," says Dave Mordell, area sales manager for Harting North America. "So, they're making machines more modular, but giving them more links, and EtherNet/IP and Profinet are in the lead for networking variable-frequency drives (VFDs), conveyors and assembly equipment. Also, many networks are melding into one-cable or wireless solutions, and this is taking out more material and labor. For example, our Hon modular solutions combine networking, power and servo motor control with just one or two terminations where it used to take several terminations."
Nathan Eisel, support manager at Beckhoff Automation adds, "PC-based control enables easier implementation of machine connectivity and helpful features, such as remote access to machines from anywhere, while industrial Ethernet also helps make sure all equipment — old, new and non-industrial — can play together. Specifically, the EtherCAT I/O system permits connection to legacy fieldbus networks, such as DeviceNet, Profibus and others for communication upstream and down by using the industrial PC as a gateway to the enterprise. Using these EL67xx terminals, older machines that never made the leap to industrial Ethernet, or aren't designed with some other efficient method of connecting to higher-level networks, can share data more easily. Best of all, using these tools, the connection is a secure, direct link from machines to other machines, to business infrastructure and to engineering experts."
Consequently, the future of machine networking is convergence of functionalities and simplified implementation, says John Kowal, packaging market development manager at B&R Industrial Automation. "Other network topologies are flattening, and this will happen with machine networking as well," he argues. "Not long ago, we had a device network connecting the I/O and PLC. We had a different network connecting servo motors and motion controller. We had serial connections or a separate network connecting things like coders, scanners, vision and robots to the PLC. Data acquisition would likely have a non-real-time network and possibly a redundant PLC ‘data concentrator.' Safety would likely be hardwired and isolated inside the machine. Today, all these functions can travel over a real-time industrial Ethernet bus, and it's actually more cost-effective to do it that way. Powerlink is a perfect example. We have one packaging material converting application with 728 servos running on one Powerlink network. The next step is to make the networking standard embedded into products rather than integrated on top of existing systems."
Because networks are multiplying in so many machines, there's also growing need for security in them, according to Dan Schaffer, business development manager for networks and security at Phoenix Contact. "People are ignoring potential security risks by simply moving files on USB and thumb drives, but there's also a lot more connections between machine OEMs, their end users and enterprise systems via dial-in, Internet and VPNs for remote diagnostics, updating and commissioning, and these links can be security risks, too," he says. "So, for the past three years, we've been offering our FL mGuard components, which are ruggedized for the plant floor, but have many of the same features as Cisco's IT routers, such as strong firewalls and Network Address Translation to hide IP addresses. This enables safer VPN connections by establishing a secure networking tunnel, so builders can monitor, diagnose and service clients' machines from anywhere."
Shaffer adds that Phoenix Contact is even planning to implement a cloud-based version of FL mGuard, so builders and users can connect and collaborate using its managed service without having to spend as much on traditional networking equipment and infrastructures.