What Are You, Chicken?

Users and Integrators Say Many Fieldbuses Don’t Function as Well on the Plant Floor as They Do in PowerPoint Slides. Fieldbus Experts Counter That Digital Networks Deliver Savings Over Time and That Users Are Still Just Being Stubborn

Jim MontagueBy Jim Montague, Executive Editor

Here’s another little secret—reporters and editors love hate mail because even a negative response proves that someone is reading their articles, which is better than worrying that no one is. In my present incarnation, I’ve been covering industrial networks for about 10 years, and I’ve grown increasingly disillusioned because it seems like twisted-pair fieldbuses and vanilla Ethernet and its quasi-proprietary flavors aren’t making substantive gains on the point-to-point hardwiring they’ve long been scheduled to replace. So I have to wonder whether anyone is listening or implementing digital networks.

Sure, the protocol organizations, members and suppliers all point to gains made by their particular fieldbuses, and truthfully the several major players have secured millions of nodes. However, all the research I’ve seen indicates that two-thirds to three-quarters of all industrial networks remain hardwired. And most observers I’ve met acknowledge that fieldbuses should be a lot further along the road to complete victory over hardwiring. So, what’s the holdup?

Some fieldbus experts say that, by now, if there are any users who don’t know about digital networks at this late date, it’s because they don’t want to know. This bleak analysis is partially true, but I think it also shifts the blame onto the users for many fieldbuses’ persistent shortcomings. Some users genuinely still don’t know about the benefits that fieldbuses can provide, but others don’t believe digital networks can help them because it’s also partially true that many fieldbuses don’t function as well on the plant floor as they do in PowerPoint slides. In fact, several system integrators tell me most applications they encounter are hardwired and that fieldbuses can’t handle all the nodes and devices they boast that they can support or generate the savings they promise. Fieldbus supporters counter that digital networks deliver most savings over time by improving diagnostics, operations, maintenance and troubleshooting and that integrators and users are still just being stubborn.

Whatever your perspective, implementing a digital network takes some forethought. If you’re considering a fieldbus project, there are several basic design and physical description parameters that should be part of any thorough search for the right digital network. These factors include but aren’t limited to:

Topology—options include trunk with drops, linear/daisy chain, star/hub-and-spoke and others. Physical dimensions of application should be sketched out. For example, standalone machines might use daisy chain, a conveyor might use a trunk, and a floor-wide application might need a star. 

Speed—depends on whether I/O points need to be scanned every few milliseconds, every few hundred milliseconds or at other intervals.

Data packet size and volume—determined by how many bits, hundreds of bytes or other packet sizes each I/O device generates, as well as how its data is organized, possibly encapsulated, addressed, transmitted and received.

Network organization—includes priorities and rules for how components announce and maintain their presence, interact and hopefully avoid data collisions. Methods include master-slave, peer-to-peer, publish-and-subscribe and others. 

Protocols—major remaining types include AS-i, DeviceNet, Foundation fieldbus, HART, Modbus, Profibus and both corresponding and unrelated Ethernet flavors. Though openness and Ethernet have expanded application types for each, they’re still adopted largely according to historical precedent.

Power distribution—many networks deliver 24 V or loop current; others do not. Recent efforts include distribution of power over Ethernet (PoE).

Cable lengths, connections, terminations—hardware availability and limits are usually a function of topology and protocol selected. 

Switching and traffic—many new tools are available for analyzing network segment loads and checking to see that communications are running properly. 

Though some added pre-planning is needed, users installing digital networks tell me it’s not as difficult as they expected and the benefits make it more than worthwhile. So, good luck, and let us know how it goes. There’s always someone else who’s further back on the learning curve, and they need to know, too. Nasty letters are fine.

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