Factories gain from IP-routed data flow

Myriad technologies — such as industrial Ethernet, 802.11 and RFID — and new software packages purport to make better use of data collected from plants and factories.

Boise Cascade Corp., an Idaho manufacturer of paper, timber and plywood products, uses a wired and wireless Ethernet setup to communicate product status and machine performance data with corporate database, ERP and supply-chain management systems.

“One of our major drivers is to take data from the infrastructure and relate it to the business process in order to lower costs,” says Greg Catalano, senior staff consultant at Boise Cascade.

The company is installing wired Ethernet and wireless 802.11-based products from Enterasys Networks Inc. in its plants. The wired gear lets data be collected directly from factory equipment as products are made. The wireless LAN (WLAN) lets workers with Wi-Fi-enabled tablet PCs do real-time inventory and plant-control tasks in the factories.

Linking manufacturing equipment to the data centre lets the company track inventory more effectively, keeping customers happier. Data collected from the production and wireless inventory systems is sent to the company’s PeopleSoft Inc. ERP system and Oracle Corp. database applications. Web extranet software lets customers track orders from the gluing-together of plywood to truck delivery. “If we don’t get timber and plywood in on time to The Home Depots and Lowes of the world, there’ll be a backlash,” Catalano says. “They’ll just go to the competitors.”

“Manufacturers are very concerned about the ability to communicate status in real time,” says Robert Parker, vice-president and manufacturing industry strategist for AMR Research Inc.

To that end they are spending more money. Two-thirds of large manufacturers said they plan to increase their technology budgets this year, according to an AMR survey.

The firm also predicts that manufacturers’ enterprise application spending will rise nine per cent this year.

Large manufacturers fueling this drive include General Motors Corp., which last fall announced a plan to convert all its machine controllers, robots and process-control equipment to Ethernet/ Industrial Protocol, a developing standard for controlling traditionally proprietary-based manufacturing equipment via standard network technology.

“We wanted an Ethernet implementation that is open, readily available, capable of real-time data delivery and uses standard infrastructure devices,” said Gary Workman, staff development engineer at GM, in a statement.


Products for linking factory floor networks included familiar names and some industry niche companies offering industrial Ethernet switches. RFID vendor Intermec Technologies Corp. this year announced the CV60, a Windows-based mobile computer that can connect to an 802.11-based network and read RFID tag data from equipment and inventory. The PC also supports Bluetooth, letting it download data and print wirelessly. The firm also announced the IP RFID scanner, a handheld scanning device that can read RFID tags or write new data to tags.

PeopleSoft also launched software to help manufacturers utilize and manage RFID data. The modules for its EnterpriseOne ERP software let users create PeopleSoft systems that produce and track RFID tags with customized product, origin-location and transaction-time data.

Cisco announced a product package aimed at manufacturers, based on versions of its Catalyst 2900 switches and Aironet Wi-Fi access points, modified to withstand extreme heat and dust on factory floors.

Also displaying new products was Wago Systems, which makes products that convert communications from programmable logic controllers (PLC) — devices that run industrial equipment — into Ethernet signals. Wago showed an eight-port hardened Ethernet switch with built-in conversion technology for transporting Fieldbus protocol traffic — a legacy manufacturing protocol — over Layer 2 Ethernet. B&B Electronics announced Wi-Fi conversion devices that can plug into serial ports on PLCs. This lets factory staff wirelessly control industrial equipment that might only have been accessible from a console or workstation attached to the machine. The company says its converters can be configured in a wireless mesh, allowing access to nodes across a large factory area.

Using IP networking in factories is nothing new at Corrugated Supply, a Chicago producer of cardboard and packaging materials. Since the mid-1990s, the firm has used an Internet-based, paperless purchase-order and work-scheduling system based on software produced in-house. Recently, the company upgraded to Cisco switches, routers, wireless and VoIP gear in its plants in Chicago, Alabama and Wisconsin for real-time plant monitoring and remote-access support.


The company uses a centralized Cisco CallManager IP PBX to run the phone system in its factories over a VPN.

This secure WAN also lets the company centralize all its data centre applications, plant monitoring applications and IP video monitoring.

“We were able to open new plants more efficiently (in Alabama and Wisconsin) because we didn’t have to provide the overhead of a phone system or payroll or accounting systems,” says Dave Pung, director of information services at Corrugated Supply.

Ethernet switches and WLANs on the factory floors feed data from corrugation machines into the data centre. Software transforms the data into real-time reports, delivered to customers over the Web. Managers in the plants also use Cisco wireless IP phones to stay connected while roaming the facilities.

The VPN also lets the company’s supplier of industrial corrugation equipment — Fosber, an Italian firm — securely access machines.

“They can come right in over the VPN and do upgrades and maintenance” on the machines, which is a lot less expensive than paying someone to come from Europe, Pung says.

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