Seven issues to think about before you develop an industrial network

Networks provide the framework for any automation project. The issues are complex and require an in-depth understanding of the requirements of your process and the nuances of networking technologies. Here are some suggestions to help you meet the challenges:

1. Multi-vendor problems. If you are connecting devices from different vendors, try to find out if you are the first to get these devices talking to each other. If yes, plan for a lengthy commissioning process. Communication standards may be fine on paper, but in practice you are likely to have to do a lot of fiddling to get everything working.

2. Selection factors. When choosing the network topology and protocol you want to use, remember to evaluate and select according to the following factors:

  • Process time requirements.
  • End-to-end distance requirements.
  • Data delivery reliability.
  • Future proofing to include scalability.
  • Data/network security requirements.
  • Current on-site expertise.
  • Ease of architecture.
  • Total cost of ownership.

3. Design for the process. When implementing an industrial network (be it Ethernet or traditional fieldbus), be sure to get all affected parties involved during the initial design. This could include production workers on the plant floor, IT, engineering and more. One method is to simulate your product going through the entire production phase, see where it goes and who interacts with it, what information it needs and where that information comes from, as well as what information it produces and where that information goes. Getting all the affected parties involved will not only get you the best solution, it will make everyone understand that they have an investment in the project.

4. Functionality varies by vendor. Understand what functions and performance your network needs to deliver before listening to various sales pitches. The functionality various manufacturers implement, even in standard fieldbus or Ethernet systems, can vary substantially. Never make assumptions about any vendor-specific products.

5. Does your team have fieldbus skills? Select a fieldbus that can be handled by the software team at your disposal. The greatest fieldbus technology in the world will fail if the software team does not understand the integration, implementation or error handling of the selected product.

6. Plan for future. Give careful consideration to site conditions and possible changes in those conditions. Design your network to handle not just current conditions, but also possible changes. This is a particular requirement in hazardous environments like cement and power plants. Don't jump into implementation in the field without prior design, locating equipment and identifying signal paths on plans.

7. Keep things simple. Industrial automation networking is great, but remember to keep things simple. If a few discrete I/O handshakes would serve the purpose, it might be the best design. Even if a fieldbus segment could theoretically be loaded to the maximum or use a less-traditional architecture, those designs could reduce system reliability or make it harder to troubleshoot in the future.

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