The Big Picture Network

April 11, 2020
What does digital transformation mean for industrial networks? How can a future-proof networking strategy help companies go digital? What are the trends in automation networks that are shaping digitalization?

Over the coming year, we here at Profibus/Profinet North America will be highlighting 10 facets of digitalization that, together, give the complete view of a state-of-the-art Profinet network—in other words: The Big Picture.

These 10 facets are:

I/O Communication. Sending and receiving inputs and outputs is the fundamental function of any industrial network. But it’s actually about more than just inputs and outputs. It’s about diagnostics, topologies, and the ecosystem of products that can be connected to the network. Because, at the end of the day, the famous quote by John Gage, formerly of Sun Microsystems, still rings true: The network is the computer.

Edge Computing. Much has been said in this space about edge computing. Some approaches include utilizing non-traditional data inputs (e.g., from the cloud) locally to make real-time decisions. Other approaches employ advanced analytics (locally on time-critical data) where cloud latency is an issue. Others still see edge computing as simply an extension of the processing already handled by the programmable logic controller (today. Either way, we’re pushing ourselves further along the path of digitalization.

Time Sensitive Networking (TSN). The beauty of time-sensitive networking (TSN) is that, if we do everything right, end-users should be blissfully unaware that their Ethernet network is now deterministic-by-design. The same Profinet protocol, engineering, features, and services will simply reside on a new and improved Ethernet. The important part is TSN will ensure robustness even as information technology and operational technology converge, and multiple protocols share the same wire.

C2C Communication. Other protocols can also benefit from TSN’s determinism, namely: OPC UA. With its publish/subscribe addition and vendor agnosticism, best-in-class machines can be connected controller-to-controller (C2C) with real-time communication. Deterministic machine-to-machine (M2M) communication is a challenge that becomes much easier to solve with OPC UA. That’s why Profibus/Profinet International (PI) has selected OPC UA as its protocol of choice for C2C communication.

C2C Safety. Functional safety between controllers at the machine level is another significant challenge in industrial automation. For this, PI has provided its ProfiSafe technology to the OPC Foundation. Safety over OPC UA enables new use-cases, such as autonomous mobile robots, and is being integrated as a core specification.

Vertical Communication. By mapping Profinet data to OPC UA objects via a companion specification, we can help meet Industry 4.0 requirements. These include the use of administration shells facilitated by OPC UA information models. For the moment, our companion specification covers diagnostics and asset management—two pieces of data that are not time critical but can be valuable to multiple systems across a factory.

Data Semantics. Adding semantics to data turns it into valuable information. Application profiles allow us to do that. They standardize the structure, parameters, format, and units associated with data coming from a family of devices. So, if OPC UA provides the “how,” then companion specifications and application profiles provide the “what.”

Security. Over the coming year, PI will begin to look at expanding upon the security in Profinet. This might mean the signing of General Station Description (GSD) files or supporting particular types of read-only modes. Eventually the integrity and authenticity of configuration data could be secured. It may even make sense to investigate securing the confidentiality of I/O data itself.

Advanced Physical Layer (APL). Work is progressing quickly on Ethernet APL. This two-wire, intrinsically safe version of Ethernet brings its richness and beauty down to instruments in process automation. With Ethernet APL, Profinet can go all the way down to the field level without the need for a translation to/from Profibus PA while using existing cabling.

5G. 5G is a hot topic right now but, for industry, it only makes sense if it performs better than Wi-Fi/Bluetooth at a price point that is acceptable. To drive prices down, the focus now is on the ability for end-users to build their own private 5G networks. If so, the bandwidth and latencies being advertised by 5G proponents are impressive.

These ten topics make up our big picture. As you can see, digitalization is not just one thing. It’s a gem with many facets. But it’s important to realize it’s not futuristic—it’s future-proof. Installing a Profinet network today is all about openness and flexibility.

While things may not move as quickly in the industrial automation market as in other markets, you still want to ensure the automation network you install can grow with the times. That’s why it makes sense to plan ahead and install an infrastructure built for tomorrow on experience learned from the past. Go digital. Go Profinet.

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