- By Thomas Burke
- December 20, 2022
- Mitsubishi Electric Automation, Inc.
Time-sensitive networking can help system integrators and end users enhance deterministic and reliable communications performance. This feature originally appeared in InTech Focus: Systems Integration 2022, the InTech Focus ebook for November 2022.
The robotics industry is currently at more than $16 billion and is growing at a rate of more than 14%. Traditional applications involve replacing repetitive tasks. Robots are programmed for a single operation, or series of operations, at a work cell. Examples are assembly, painting, welding, etc. These are some of the easiest robotics applications to program and run.
As robots have proven themselves, we see them taking on more tasks that have typically been the domain of humans. These tasks are pick-and-place and assembly, often where source and destination positions are variable. Initially, robot applications were for high-value applications, whereas the cost of a robot, integration, and configuration could be justified. These applications are often in electronics or product assembly.
We are seeing cost reduction in robots, their configuration and long-term costs, and that is fueling applications in lower overhead markets like food sorting and packaging. As more robots are being applied in these profit-constrained markets, there will be continued pressure to reduce the overall costs of robot acquisition, installation, and maintenance. This will drive several significant trends: improvements in robot communications, configuration and coordination.
Communications in the robotics industry must become more flexible and real time. Many robot applications today rely on preprogrammed movements with triggers to select them. This is the simplest case, where there are no communications at all. At the other extreme, we have the operation of several robots in confined areas with the need for coordinated movements and collision avoidance. For these applications, communications need to enable remotely controlled position commands and would benefit from the highest available performance. As with robot controls, there is also a spectrum of capability in industrial communications. As they become more remotely driven, coordinated by a combination of cameras and movement simulation, advanced industrial communication that leverages the leading edge will become a necessity.
Today, ethernet with time-sensitive networking (TSN) is the leading edge in industrial communications. TSN (figure 1) is an innovative ethernet technology defined by the IEEE 802.1 standard that resides at Layer 2 of the OSI 7-layer model. This is quickly proving its essential role in the connected industries of the future thanks to its unique ability to support convergence on the factory floor as well as between information technology (IT) and operational technology (OT) worlds. Its importance is being acknowledged by several sectors that are demanding automation solutions with TSN capabilities.
Robot vendors might be wondering if the time is right to adopt TSN. In fact, there is a strong case for acting now. Implementing this technology within their products today is a safe bet that can enhance competitiveness and market share. Many businesses are currently in their digital transformation, and it is key for automation specialists to support them now with future-oriented solutions.
For those who think that maybe now is not the time for action, a clear parallel can be drawn between TSN and mobile phone technology, which has been quickly transitioning from 2G to 3G, 4G, and recently 5G. Instead of waiting for the next technology, competitive manufacturers promptly implemented these advances as the technology continued to evolve. This helped them address immediate market demands. Most technical specialists agree that any given technology continually evolves. Therefore, waiting for it to be “finished” is a futile strategy that will see their companies falling behind.
TSN role within industrial ethernet protocols
When adopting TSN, companies need to consider a number of practicalities. For example, forward-looking device vendors who are interested in adding TSN functions to their products might be wondering how TSN affects the general support that their solutions already offer for current industrial ethernet protocols. To this end, it’s important to note that this innovative technology was designed to improve standard ethernet, and it only operates at Layer 2 of the OSI model. TSN is intended to work with various protocols and support their convergence to enhance interconnectivity, helping users have different traffic types coexisting on a single network.
Ultimately, this technology is just a “pipe,” and therefore, industrial ethernet protocols are still required to cover the remaining application use cases, such as safety and motion control. It is important for robot manufacturers to understand that TSN cannot replace all industrial ethernet connectivity. Instead, they should leverage an industrial ethernet solution that supports all key uses cases while providing the convergence benefits offered by TSN, such as CC-Link IE TSN. This is the first open and widely supported network technology that combines gigabit bandwidth with TSN functions.
Upgrading robots and control devices
Once a key solution for industrial communications has been selected, companies should look at how to upgrade their products to provide these new capabilities. The development ecosystem available depends on the technology selected. For example, CC-Link IE TSN offers multiple options, both software- and hardware-based, that can offer different speeds of TSN implementation, device performance, and certification classes.
As a result of the many development methods available, vendors can ensure that the right technical solution is available for the specific product they want to deliver. For example, software protocol stacks are ideal for businesses that are interested in quickly implementing CC-Link IE TSN, as they offer perhaps the fastest method to enhance existing products by reducing in-house development time and costs. Furthermore, they are generally portable, so they can be applied with minimal changes. When performance is more important, hardware solutions are best suited to ensure CC-Link IE TSN conformance. These include application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs), also referred to as dedicated communication large-scale integrations (LSIs), as well as field programmable gate arrays (FPGAs).
Ultimately, TSN will change over time as all new technologies do, but automation vendors can benefit from considerable gains by providing innovative capabilities to their devices now. There is broad acceptance of CC-Link IE TSN today, and the ecosystem continues to grow rapidly. By leveraging this open network technology, both device vendors and machine builders can tap into new market opportunities quickly, futureproofing their businesses and their customers’ operations.
Other benefits of TSN-based industrial networks
While we can certainly “engineer” ethernet reliability into an application by knowing what products will be using the network, and coordinating their use of that network, it requires closed, not open, networks. Closed networks can’t help us with our need for continuous improvement, digital transformation, etc. The use of TSN-based ethernet communications means that we can reliably combine all communications, both IT and OT, on a common ethernet backbone.
TSN-based industrial network benefits include:
- Access to all OT devices from your IT network. This enables improvements in analytics, asset management, device management and configuration, and all things digital transformation.
- Improved performance. The combination of scheduling, prioritization, and greater bandwidth is resulting in the ability to handle larger and more complex applications reliably, especially in the motion control and robotics markets.
- Simplified architectures. These offer cost savings and improved reliability.
- Easier troubleshooting. Users can now leverage such IT tools as Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP) to interact with and manage OT network devices, leading to a greater understanding of control elements and enhancing their dependability.
- Reduced cost through new product delivery and market competition. Initial solutions at the end of 2018 focused on high-performance applications around a limited set of vendors. But over time, more device and infrastructure vendors have stepped forward with compatible product offerings and are now offering a robust ecosystem of solutions from which to choose.
Ethernet with TSN doesn’t need to become your entire backbone for enterprise communications. It is more likely that system integrators and end users will implement “islands of TSN” that are dedicated to a machine or a production line, leveraging high-performance, deterministic and reliable communications performance there, while bridging those communications to IT networks to enable wider access to information to achieve digital transformation.
There is a concern in the market. With more vendors leveraging ethernet with TSN, how can we ensure co-existence or interoperability? That question has recently been addressed with a new, cross-vendor initiative, the TSN Industrial Automation Conformance Collaboration. This collaboration between Avnu, CC-Link Partner Association, ODVA, OPC Foundation, and PROFIBUS & PROFINET International delivers a single common conformance test plan for the IEC/IEEE 60802 Profile of TSN for industrial automation.
Improved robot communications means more capability
As robot applications become more cost effective, they will be taking on roles that were typically done by humans. These will require greater complexity and the coordination of vision systems with robot coordination and collision avoidance. Robot manufacturers will need to work closely with a new class of companies focused on independent robot controls that will deliver camera vision-based solutions to drive robot movements, provide simulation solutions to manage those movements and avoid collisions, and quickly repurpose robots from one application to the next.
One leading robot provider is facilitating these needs for greater cross-company integration, not only with such leading communications as CC-Link IE TSN, but also with a partner program to drive collaboration and deliver integrated solutions to the robotics market. Called [email protected] Alliance, this program is offered by robot control vendors and system integrators that are able to deliver these new solutions.
This feature originally appeared in InTech Focus: Systems Integration 2022, the InTech Focus ebook for November 2022.
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