Figure 1: Future-oriented industrial-network specialists will always be able to identify what is relevant and incorporate it in their solutions.

A brief history of industrial networks

March 15, 2023
How a simple cable has helped the automation industry push the boundaries of what is possible in manufacturing
Network technologies have been evolving and adapting since their inception, addressing the increasingly ambitious needs of the industrial automation landscape with value-adding standards, protocols and innovations. Now that digital manufacturing is becoming a must for companies to maintain and enhance their competitiveness, industrial communications networks are undergoing their latest renaissance.

In the late 1950s, the most future-oriented industrial players began to face a pressing and growing issue: how to have shop-floor devices send signals over distance and have them communicate with each other. The development of the first serial data transmission solutions, such as RS-232, in the 1960s gave life to industrial communications.

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In effect, less than three decades later, the launch of controller area network (CAN) systems, fieldbus and Ethernet opened the door to more complex and interconnected communications. They enabled a greater number of sensors, controlled devices and other network nodes to share unprecedented volumes of data at high speed. In particular, Ethernet has risen to become the foundational network technology in nearly every industrial application, thanks to its ubiquitous nature.

The evolution of industrial communications technologies doesn’t end here. As companies continue to advance their automation systems and shop floors, new needs have emerged. These can be summarized as the ability to add an ever-growing number of devices to the network and reliably handle an increasing volume of data traffic, as well as the opportunity to share data among components from different vendors.

To address these growing demands, capabilities have been added to industrial Ethernet and functionalities have been developed, offering higher speeds and bandwidth to enable more ambitious transmission rates, moving from 10 Mbps to 100 Mbps and, in some cases 1 Gbps. This has allowed automation-device makers to develop more competitive products and users to implement more data-driven operations.

It is possible to identify a clear trend toward open, vendor-neutral network technologies. Interoperable alternatives give system integrators and end users the ability to utilize the automation products that are best suited to address their specific requirements and intended applications. Even equipment vendors have been benefiting from this transition toward more open ecosystems, as they are able to support compatibility with a broader range of devices and, in some instances, establish synergistic collaborations with other industry players.

The drive toward smarter digital manufacturing practices is resulting in further adaptations and advances in what network technologies can and should offer. As companies look at setting up successful Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) frameworks to improve productivity and efficiency, their primary focus is on reliable network solutions that can support high levels of speed, interconnectivity and flexibility. This can be achieved through enhanced interoperability, standardization and responsiveness, as offered by time-sensitive networking (TSN).

This latest extension to the capabilities of Ethernet provides extremely accurate, distributed time synchronization (IEEE 802.1 AS standards) as well as data traffic prioritization, scheduling and queuing functionalities (IEEE 802.1 Qbv standards). As a result, it is possible to meet the exacting requirements of control applications with extremely short cycle times, as well as transfer urgent data traffic first. In practice, these features make network infrastructures able to support even the most demanding motion-control systems, whose communications can be fast-tracked to meet deterministic requirements, while also transferring less urgent, best-effort data.

Ultimately, the use of a TSN-compatible industrial Ethernet technology means that it is possible to create unified IIoT environments where any type of data can be shared, independent of the type or original domain, whether it’s IT or OT, to generate business knowledge.

In addition, the latest developments around TSN technology, namely the creation of the TSN Industrial Automation Conformance Collaboration (TIACC), have been driving vendor-neutral, industry-wide conformance. Such initiatives are proactively addressing market demands for the coexistence of differing protocols within the same network, bringing vendors together to validate their TSN-compatible solutions for greater interoperability.

It would be naïve to think that, after these latest developments, industrial networking will reach the end of its evolutionary journey. In fact, we can already see the next generation of ambitions and innovations coming to the fore, such as wireless communications connecting shop floors, enterprises and entire supply chains. Other trends seem to hint at simplified networking requirements, as promoted by single-pair Ethernet (SPE) and power over Ethernet (PoE) advocates.

There is also always room for the unexpected to influence how industrial networking will continue to develop, as new user requirements and applications may not manifest until after the digital transformation of business matures further. Ultimately, which new communications technologies will be released to market and take root will be dictated by what industry players will require to maintain their competitiveness. What we do know for sure though is that experienced, future-oriented industrial network specialists will be able to identify what is relevant and incorporate them into their solutions quickly to benefit automation vendors, machine builders and end users (Figure 1).

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