The Backbone of the Industrial Internet of Things: A Solid, Flexible Communication Network |

The Backbone of the Industrial Internet of Things: A Solid, Flexible Communication Network

The Backbone of the Industrial Internet of Things: A Solid, Flexible Communication Network

By Thomas J. Schoepf, Director Research & Development, Belden, Inc.

At the heart of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) lies reliable, high-performing communications and connectivity networks. The vision for machines that talk to other machines, collect data, then analyze and report on that data can only be realized by robust and flexible communications networks. In industrial operations, the physical assets that collect and enable the transmission of data – cables, connectors, patch cords, sensors, switches, etc. – must be able to withstand the harsh conditions and high-performance expectations in these environments. This is industrial Ethernet.

Automation, manufacturing and information technology (IT) teams working in industrial operations need to familiarize themselves with the fundamental requirements, characteristics and technologies of industrial communications networks. With answers to some of the more common questions about industrial Ethernet, teams can explore and design solutions, confident that they can deploy an optimal communication network for their organization.

What is industrial Ethernet?

Industrial Ethernet can be compared to a backbone that connects all parts of a manufacturing enterprise – from the corporate office and the production floor to remote locations. These platforms provide both internet and enterprise connectivity, anytime and anywhere.

How is industrial Ethernet different than enterprise or commercial Ethernet?

Industrial Ethernet is built on the same standards-based networking protocols as enterprise or commercial Ethernet, but is different in a significant way: The environments in which enterprise Ethernet solutions must perform are relatively clean and quiet; cables can be hidden in ceilings or under floors and switches and other connecting components can be stored in sheltered areas.

In contrast, industrial Ethernet networks operate in unforgiving settings where machines, automation and manufacturing equipment generate noise and vibrations, and where exposure to chemicals, UV radiation, moisture and extreme temperatures is the norm. In spite of these conditions, these networks must still perform consistently and reliably.

Why is the distinction so important?

The IIoT is bringing the focus on connectivity and control networks to new levels. As more smart machines connect to the internet and generate exponential volumes of data, industrial Ethernet becomes a critical component to building the factories of the future.

The challenge, of course, is uptime. In industrial operations, every minute of unplanned production downtime is measured in revenue lost. It’s estimated that if a cabling component or Ethernet switch fails, the cost to repair it could be 15-20 times the original cost. It’s clear, then, why it is essential that these components are able to withstand the harsh conditions in which they are installed.

What kinds of technologies are available to help meet these demands and requirements?

The rise of the IIoT brings a new approach to production that requires technology to evolve with it. The demands placed on communication networks not only affects the technology itself, but also the way the technology is used.

To meet the need for flexibility, durability, higher resource and energy efficiencies, teams are looking to “plug-and-play” products, meaning you turn it on, and it works. The practical extension of plug-and-play products, when applied to the entirety of the industrial automation process, has given way to a new term: “plug-and-produce.” Plug-and-produce technology offers immediate implementation, with no need for special tools or highly trained engineers. The benefits of these technologies are clear:

  1. Fast, easy and intuitive installation:Network and connectivity components plug into each other and work immediately. Broken parts can easily be disconnected and replaced in seconds.
  2. Dynamic infrastructure:These tools can easily adapt as technologies and needs change, providing a flexible foundation for the network.
  3. Standards:The system adheres to a common structure and ensures a seamless working relationship with components and sub-systems. These products go through iterations more quickly, continually becoming both better and faster.
  4. Consolidation of devices:Plug-and-produce products reduce stock needed by machine builders by designing devices for global use with regional specifications.
  5. Pre-diagnostic data: The purpose-built technology is designed with monitoring capabilities, which increases efficiency and enhances uptime, leading to tremendous cost savings.

Plug-and-produce plays an important role in the implementation of processes that enable the IIoT. As with all industrial applications, it’s important to consider the environmental conditions these products will encounter and choose product specifications wisely.

What are some of the conditions that make industrial environments so challenging?

The term “industrial” spans a broad and diverse category of operations: discrete manufacturing of everything from automobiles to smart phones; process manufacturing, such as food and beverage, paper and pulp, chemicals, energy, and more; commercial and government sites, including water and wastewater treatment plants, transportation hubs; and much more. While each segment has its own unique characteristics, they share some common challenges.

Generally speaking, these include: extreme operating temperatures, voltage fluctuations, UV radiation, machine vibration, exposure to corrosive chemicals, noise interference, motion and impact. Teams need to understand which specific challenges they face and choose solutions that are designed to protect against them.

Although each application has unique requirements that will dictate the type of specifications teams need, plug-and-produce products that include a protective casing and housing are ideal. A metal casing is both mechanically and electrically robust, protecting the internal components from environmental extremes, which makes it an ideal option for most industrial environments.

What requirements should inform the development of a network strategy for industrial operations?

There are three mission-critical requirements for today’s industrial Ethernet. First, safety is a top priority, which puts protecting both people and processes at number one. To achieve the fail-safe reliability and redundancy for data transmissions necessary for those applications, network components must exceed the requirements for hazardous environments.

Second, as mentioned above, unplanned downtime is not an option. One survey of automotive executives estimated the cost of unplanned downtime at $22,000 per minute. Reaching maximum uptime to ensure the smooth and reliable operation of facilities starts with preventing signal transmission problems.

The third priority is control. The uninterrupted flow of signals between devices, machinery and the control system is mandatory in the highly automated environments of the factories of the future, with little or no margin for error.

What are some of the business benefits that can be achieved with industrial Ethernet?

A complete, end-to-end Ethernet solution, built to withstand the rigors of an industrial environment, facilitates the flow of information between all stakeholders in the value chain – the production facility, the back office and even customers.

The operational benefits at the industrial facility and enterprise levels can be measured in both the short and long term. Immediately, industrial operations can gain access to real-time data, such as inventory visibility and increased production capacity, to improve overall operations; integration with enterprise resource planning (ERP) for scheduling, planning, quality tracking and delivery information; and lower costs for maintenance and administration. In the longer term, benefits include faster and less costly plant upgrades and expansion.

For more information about why plug-and-produce is important for meeting the challenges of increased global competition and enabling applications, download this white paper: “The Road to Plug-and-Produce.”

About the Author


Dr. Thomas J. Schoepf is director of research and development in Belden’s Industrial Connectivity Solutions business. His responsibilities include the global research and development of high-performance, field-level industrial connectivity and control products, as well as the development of customized solutions upon customer requests. Prior to joining Belden, Thomas worked with industry leaders, such as Siemens, TE, Delphi and Eaton, having held a range of research and technology focused management positions. Thomas has a doctorate in electrical engineering from the Vienna University of Technology, Austria.


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