'Game-Changing' Advances Depend on Networking

How Cloud Computing, Virtual Servers, Smart Phones, Tablet PCs, the Internet and Other Hip Technology are Taking Over Control and Automation

By Jim Montague

It's funny to listen to some sources and myself sometimes. Often, we talk without thinking. Luckily, with a little awareness and practice, it can be easy to spot and call out the baloney. 

For instance, we hear lots of proclamations lately about how cloud computing, virtual servers, smart phones, tablet PCs, the Internet and every other hip technology will take over control and automation in the same way they're steamrolling through the business and consumer worlds. Many of us claim that iPhones and iPads are already all over plants floors, monitoring and controlling critical production lines and processes. But, while this might be possible in some applications, these claims need to be taken with huge grains of salt. Just like all breathlessly hyped fads, they tend to forget or leave out a few essential details.

SEE ALSO: Industrial Networking Boosts Builders and Users

For example, representatives of both DuPont Engineering and Dow Chemical reported at the recent ABB Automation & Power World 2013 that they're migrating to Microsoft's Office 365 cloud-based service for e-mail, some collaborative applications, data aggregation, and some monitoring jobs. "We can use the cloud for internal opportunities such as going beyond some of OSHA's requirements as part of our continuous process improvement efforts," said Michael Williams, Dow's senior asset manager. "When latency and security aren't criteria, using the cloud can make economic sense. These tools can be employed if users have the discipline and security to apply them appropriately."

Naturally, many jobs can draw a business and its manufacturing processes into cloud-based services at several levels, but each of these "game-changing" advances depends on networking. And, in manufacturing settings and facilities, they rely on industrial wires, cables, cordsets, connectors, Ethernet switches, cable trays and bundling ties, racks and enclosures, uninterrupted power, cooperative networking protocols and appropriate software. Ironically, even wireless itself depends on lots of wiring at the transmitting and receiving ends of its antenna locations.

However, similar to many of the control, automation and IT engineers that deploy them, these critical cables and components are decidedly unglamorous — except for a few really shiny Ethernet cables and polished, rack-mounted servers that bear more than a passing resemblance to some sultry sports cars. Despite these very few exceptions, the overall drabness of most networking components gives them a very unfair aura that doesn't reflect the true coolness of their capabilities and functions. Most networking cables and components are far more essential to maintaining communications and stable and secure operations than all the flashy apps and other media darlings whose superficial content they convey. Sadly, too few people know about it — and that's what has to change.

In this era of 24/7 social media sharing, the unheralded network cables and switches—as well as their technicians and engineers — need to be highlighted and championed by those aware of their crucial roles. Plant-floor and mainstream users alike must be reminded what side their network bread is buttered on, and learn to appreciate the networking foundations they rely on.
Consequently, if you know that networks are the foundation for all of our slick apps and capabilities, then speak the heck up! Raising awareness will give networks and technicians some of the credit they deserve, but more importantly it will wake up users and managers, and get them to support and fund the much bigger networks that will be needed to handle vastly more traffic and far more critical functions in the near future.

In fact, it's already a challenge to deploy and manage communication and control networks on just one sprawling production line or plant. However, as remote monitoring and control continues to emerge, it's going to be increasingly prevalent and risky to maintain networks over long distances via Ethernet, digital wireless, radio, cellular and Internet-based protocols. So, we're going to need far more available and reliable networks to monitor and manage all their components, users, virtualized servers, smart electric grids and other pieces both near and far.

Luckily, just as intelligent switching and addressing made Ethernet deterministic, similarly obsessive validation of communications will likely ensure reliable, safe and easy-to-heal networking, even over long distances and complex infrastructures. They're just going to need a little awareness and support from their users, managers and larger communities. So, bend some ears and let your voice be heard because advocating for your network is going will be vital to maintaining its operations, safety and security.