How to be Sure Your Network is Futureproof

  • October 18, 2014
  • Rockwell Automation
  • Rockwell Automation
  • Feature

How to be Sure Your Network is Futureproof

By Paul Brooks, Rockwell Automation

Manufacturers should carefully consider their infrastructure investments today to take advantage of the emerging wealth of industrial innovations enabled by the Internet Protocol (IP).

Consider: The typical infrastructure lifecycle in the automation space is somewhere between eight and 10 years. Looking at the rapid advance of innovations using IP technology in the consumer and commercial sectors, it’s clear that manufacturing must prepare for a similar evolution. Part of that evolution is predictable today and here we explore some of those predictable changes to our information landscape and its impact on infrastructure.

That’s because IP isn’t just some transitory consumer convenience or the latest iteration of a familiar business tool. IP is and will continue to be the defining technology of the Internet and the Internet of Things (IoT) – as well as the applications that convert the data generated by these things into an abundance of actionable information. 

The IoT is re-defining the Internet as we know it, and its exponential growth is transforming myriad markets and socio-economics on a planetary scale. In 2014, for example, an estimated 100 objects per second were connecting to the Internet, ranging from digital tablets, to cardiac monitors, to sensor-enabled thermostats. 

By 2020, more than 250 things will connect each second.

On the factory floor, this phenomenal growth includes controllers, sensors, video cameras, and other devices and applications – some still awaiting invention. 

Today, manufacturers can future-proof their operations by embracing business practices, customer approaches and technologies that leverage standard, unmodified use of the Internet Protocol. 

Megatrends Favor IP 

Many best-in-class manufacturers already are deploying a secure, IP-enabled communications fabric to improve connectivity between people, partners and processes in industrial applications. These “early adopter” companies stand ready to reap their share of the $3.88 trillion in global profits expected to be generated by manufacturers in the next decade because of the Internet of Things. 

Still, many other manufacturers aren’t ready or aren’t convinced about the opportunities offered by a unified, IP-centric network.

So why should they believe? Because the megatrends that favor investing in a converged IP-enabled network are multiplying. And they’ll significantly impact manufacturers within the lifecycle of automation equipment they buy today.

Worker mobility. The digital tablet is here to stay. Already, sales of handheld devices, including smart phones and tablets, exceed those of traditional PCs. While tablets are rare on factory floors today, it’s safe to assume they’ll become mission-critical devices within the lifecycle of current investment decisions.

That means manufacturers will need a network infrastructure that supports the type of authentication and encryption coded into tablets. And they’ll also need to integrate wireless into their plant floor communications architecture, using standard IEEE 802.11 technologies.  

The end of standalone PCs. On the server side, something is occurring that’s equally transformative to the rise of digital tablets. The cloud and virtualization are changing the way we scale, deploy and manage our compute resource, driving down both operational and capital costs. For example, some vendors are selling many medium voltage drives with cloud services and delivering real up-time benefits doing so. 

Early adopters of virtualized servers are slashing the costs of server acquisition, deployment, maintenance and upgrades. The data center is coming to a plant near you – obviously industrialized, but also virtualized.

This has a real impact on manufacturing networks, significantly increasing data volume – and even more significantly, impacting the types of traffic flowing through the network. Today’s networks must be designed to carry tomorrow’s data flows and types. That means manufacturers will need to support all their virtual clients on different virtual LANs from their automation equipment.  They’ll also need routing capability for servers that are not physically adjacent to machinery.  

These changes will demand a demilitarized zone, and servers running inside the demilitarized zone to provide access to the manufacturing zone.

The rise of remote expertise. The pool of engineers and technicians with expertise in automation systems is shrinking globally. In the not-too-distant future, manufacturers won’t have a specialist in every technology in every plant. Instead, they’ll increasingly outsource those skills. 

The inevitable move of humans away from the plant floor – and often away from the plant itself – will increase the need for video and other electronic eyes to support both monitoring and human collaboration. 

Remote access will become the norm, whether by machine builders with maintenance contracts, or virtual engineering teams, or simply by the expert on a specific machine working in a different plant. 

This means the network architecture for manufacturing will have to support video and other collaboration tools. Remote experts also will require the ability to tunnel through the demilitarized zone from outside.

By committing to a common technology platform with the rest of the Internetworking world, manufacturers can increase their talent pool and reduce the barriers that keep much-needed expertise outside the door of the plant floor.

More productive machines. Tomorrow’s manufacturing won’t revolve around real-time control and making machines run faster. Companies running at an OEE in the 60-plus percentage-point range can’t make their machines run 50 percent faster – the products can’t handle it. 

Besides, the traditional focus on building faster and faster machines already is eroding. Just look at the automotive industry, where cycle times are getting longer rather than shorter. That’s because customers want more and more customized vehicles.  And more customization requires a longer cycle time. 

So the question isn’t, “how many cars can we produce in an hour?”  It’s “how efficient is our manufacturing process – how lean is it?” 

This requires manufacturers to look at long-term process optimization with a whole new set of sensors, historians, analytic software and decision-making loops – all co-existing on the same network. The sensors and historians commonly used today for real-time control aren’t necessarily going to be the right ones for long-term process optimization.

Manufacturers also need to think about different measurements. The classic example of this is vibration monitoring. It’s been deployed in industrial applications for years and years. But other technologies will come to the fore purely for long-term process optimization rather than for real-time control.

Automation drives investment. Fifty-five percent of all devices currently deployed on plant floors are connected to programmable controllers and use automation protocols, according to IHS Research. So for the foreseeable future, the automation system will continue to drive network infrastructure investments.   

This means manufacturers must choose automation protocols that co-exist with the IoT universe – including innovations and inventions yet to be conceived. 

We don’t know all the transformative innovations that IoT will enable – if we did we would be working on them in our garages right now!  But we do know that IP will be the enabling technology that fosters those innovations. 

Commonality of technology enables and facilitates commonality of processes. Today, manufacturers can prepare for the advances of tomorrow by adopting Industrial IP.

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