New Strategies, Tools Keep Network Neighborhoods Cool

Turf Battles, Finger-Pointing Cause Many Conflicts Between Control Engineers, IT Staff

By Jim Montague

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Can't we all just get along? That plea, first from the late Rodney King and later from the U.S. president played by Jack Nicholson in "Mars Attacks," is a long-sought and much-desired goal for control and automation engineers, their IT counterparts and their companies.

It's been quite a while since fieldbuses, Ethernet, Internet, wireless and other digital technologies began to encroach on the plant floor's traditional point-to-point networks for operations and control, but engineers and IT still get on each other's nerves.

Perhaps not as much at each other's throats as they once were, many remain highly resentful and don't work together well. As usual, culture takes far longer to evolve than technology.

"We used to sit in project meetings with only the controls guys, but in the past few years IT people started attending, and it's gotten better," says Keith Jones, PE, president of Prism Systems, a system integrator in Mobile, Ala. "However, we were just in a meeting with a Fortune 500 manufacturer, and its engineers told us ahead of time to listen to what IT was going say, but warned us not to agree right away to do anything. They told us to wait, and the engineers would decide if what IT wanted could be done. They had concerns, and wanted to make sure they could override any IT requests, if needed. Apparently, IT had previously pushed some Windows patches onto the plant network without notifying the controls side, and it had shut down some production lines. So the controls engineers demanded that patches couldn't be forced."

So, why didn't these controls engineers and their IT counterparts talk out these issues in the first place? Why weren't they straight with each other in their meetings? And why didn't they settle on mutually understood patching policies and project requirements before operational problems happened? Whatever the history and reasons for these continuing squabbles, many managers are sick of them, and are demanding that they stop. Fortunately, there are a bunch of new strategies and tools for dividing and coordinating network responsibilities to prevent finger-pointing and settle these old conflicts.

Start With Leadership
The primary initial element in getting controls engineers and IT to cooperate is their managers. While these conflicts often were ignored in the past, many leaders not only are requiring both sides to cooperate, but are reorganizing them under common managers, and developing hybrid engineers with both controls and IT skills.

Nagesh Nidamaluri, senior general manager at Mahindra Vehicle Manufacturers (MVML) in Mumbai, India, reports that his company's 14 greenfield auto plants and shops in 280 acres in Chakan, India, work with their IT departments to connect the manufacturing execution system (MES) on its huge and expanding plant floors to its enterprise resource planning (ERP) system.

"We're connecting all of our many varied components and production equipment with IP addresses, which gives us the flexibility to be lean and expand as needed," he explains. "This method also gives us visualization for our plant managers, so they handle production in real time, and shift or expand production lines more quickly in response to supply-chain issues and other situations."

Traditional IT vs. control engineering conflicts were resolved mostly because he now oversees both departments, and he's encouraged them to work together, Nidamaluri adds.

To serve present production and future plans, the campus local area network (LAN) for Mahindra's Chakan project was designed and implemented to support applications such as Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), plant data, IT data, business systems, security and alarms. Each plant has its own network hub room, and uses a backbone of single-mode 10 Gbps fiberoptic cable between shops and multi-mode 1 Gbps fiberoptic cable within each shop, which enables dual-path redundancy, rerouting and self-healing during recovery. The body shops also use Cat. 6 UTP cable with IP67 bayonet jacks to withstand vibration and protect against dust, water and oil (Figure 1). So far, system integrator Wipro Technologies and Molex report they've helped install 165 km of UTP/FTP cables and 124 km of OFC cables at the shops, and have reserved space and capacity for planned wireless devices in the future. This backbone also assists Chakan's green initiative and sustainability systems, such as heat recovery, solar panels, water treatment and several manufacturing processes.

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