Ethernet moving from office to factory floor

As manufacturers upgrade their plants to become more efficient, they are replacing proprietary process control networks with Ethernet and Internet Protocol, creating a whole new set of challenges, according to one test and measurement vendor.

“You’re now putting IP- addressable devices on the plant floor which weren’t there before,” such as robots and programmable logic controllers, said David Green, director of marketing for Fluke Electronics Canada LP of Mississauga, Ont. “You have a lot of large machinery with all the issues of power disturbances, electrical noise, electromagnetic interference and a whole range of things that can cause problems even with the existing communication today without the Ethernet.”

Fluke, whose product line includes the Etherscope and two versions of its Industrial Network Test ScopeMeters, is marketing products to plant engineers to help them troubleshoot industrial networks.

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Fluke announced last month it is shipping the 225C and 21C ScopeMeter Test Tools, designed for plant maintenance specialists. Features include validation of signal parameters, such as amplitude and noise and the ability to isolate input channels.

Green gave Network World Canada his perspective on major issues affecting manufacturing plants and other harsh environments, noting many IT managers are not familiar with industrial processes, while industrial engineers are not always IT-savvy.

“IT guys often don’t want to deal with issues on the plant floor,” he said. “The plant engineers knows industrial processes and machinery but doesn’t know the IT side.”

A Yankee Group analyst agreed.

“Network engineers in general tend not to understand the process with which people work by,” said Zeus Kerravala, senior vice-president for enterprise research at the Boston-based market research firm. “They tend to understand networking itself.”

Kerravala added network managers “in a typical office environment” don’t have the same challenges as those in industrial settings.

“You have a very consistent level of air conditioning and in and heat, and power doesn’t fluctuate very much,” he said of office environments. “There’s generally very little dust.”

Green agreed, adding there’s greater potential for something to go wrong in a factory.

“There’s a lot of things going on with vibration, you’ve got to go around heavy duty machinery, which shakes, rattles and rolls, and a lot of potential issues for breakdown of the infrastructure,” including damage to cable and connectors.

“The Ethernet protocol has to deal with a whole bunch of things in terms of who’s on the network, bandwidth, alarms and error detection, all of the same things you would deal with in the office,” Green said. “The major difference you have when you get into the industrial space is, your process interruptions could be unsafe or catastrophic.”

The consequences of an office losing its network are not always catastrophic, he said.

“If you go offline for a while and your contact centre’s out of business or all of a sudden you can’t deliver some services to the kiosk somewhere or your bank machines, it’s not the end of the world for a short period of time,” Green said. “But if suddenly you lose control in a major plant somewhere an you have widgets going everywhere or something boiling over, it could be a big problem.”

Green said devices in factories, such as switches, routers, temperature devices, robots, and surveillance cameras, are getting IP addresses.

He added process control is not the only industrial function using Ethernet

“Data gathering is probably one of the biggest areas where there’s crossover in the traditional IT space,” he said. “Now the data you’re gathering on the floor in real is being communicated back now and being integrated in the ERP systems and production control systems in the front office.”

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