Ethernet meets the factory floor

Whether there’s a “network disconnect” between enterprise back-office systems and manufacturing plants depends on whom you ask. GE Industrial Systems and Cisco Systems Inc. seem to think there is one, and they have formed a new company to bridge that divide.

The company, GE Cisco Industrial Networks Inc. in Charlottesville, Va., sells and services Ethernet networks that connect business systems such as those from SAP AG with factory systems that control machines and processes.

But it’s unclear to some corporate users and industry analysts whether there’s really a missing link between the office enterprise and the controls on factory floors and plant process systems. And even if network connectivity between the blue- and white-collar domains exists, some wonder if pulling Ethernet cable from one to the other is really what’s needed.

“Wires we’ve got,” said John Dettenwanger, CIO at Cessna Aircraft Co. in Wichita, Kan. What Cessna really needs, he said, is more standardization between computer-aided design systems and automated machine tools.

Harry Tse, a vice-president and analyst at The Yankee Group Inc. in Boston, also said Ethernet is already on the shop floor. What Cisco may be trying to do, he said, is to make it more robust in the factory space.

Another analyst, Stan Schatt at Giga Information Group Inc. in Cambridge, Mass., said many factories are already upgrading to Ethernet from proprietary networks that may run at only 1Mbps to 2Mbps. The latest incarnation of Ethernet, Gigabit Ethernet, can transport data at up to 1,000Mbps. And 10GB Ethernet is on the way, perhaps by year’s end, according to Schatt.