Ethernet, Collaborative Platforms are the Future

May 3, 2012
With all technology trend lines showing that 1) everything is moving toward the use of Ethernet to enable more connected enterprises and 2) greater use of cloud computing, automation vendor GE Intelligent Platforms ( announced that it has standardized on Profinet as its communication backbone of choice.

“We’re simplifying how we think about the industrial communication backbone and focusing on Ethernet,” said Bernie Anger, general manager of control and communication systems for GE Intelligent Platforms. “And, based on its technological merits, we see Profinet as the core industrial communication backbone.”

Anger spoke at the Profinet Executive Leadership Forum in February 2012, hosted by PI North America, a non-profit, member-supported organization for fieldbus and Industrial Ethernet, specifically Profibus and Profinet. Anger joined PI North America’s board in April 2011.

Part of Anger’s explanation for GE Intelligent Platform’s ( support of Profinet revolved around GE’s expectations for the future of industrial operations. Anger pointed to three trends that GE sees gathering steam in the industrial sector:

  • Wide use of Ethernet and standard protocols;
  • Use of scalable collaborative platforms for design, production and supply chain operations; and
  • Development of ecosystems, sometimes ad hoc, for engineering support.

To illustrate the last point, Anger noted that 73 percent of water facilities in the U.S. have no qualified system integrators in their county to turn to for help with automation technology applications. “So they solve problems for themselves through collaboration with other engineers within driving distance,” he said.

Anger went on to explain how, through the use of Ethernet-based scalable collaborative platforms to create ecosystems of engineering alliances, these currently unsupported facilities are now capable of bringing together expertise and content online as needed. This allows them to access engineering knowledge on a global basis, rather than being limited to what’s available within driving distance.

Anger admitted that this approach may seem far-fetched for most industrial companies today, but “we’re clearly moving toward the use of computing power on demand and building connected partnerships online” for instances like this, he said.

Pointing to existing examples where companies are already leveraging connected communities to solve complex problems, Anger cited Top Coder, an operation that employs no developers but connects users to 390,000+ computer professionals who are available to solve their challenges. At the Top Coder site, users post problems and what they’re willing to pay to get them fixed.

“Even for those professionals who do not win the contract, this approach is feasible for them because they can develop content to apply for one project that can then be reused to apply for other project requests,” said Anger.

To underscore the increasing prominence of cloud-based computing in our lives that is driving GE Intelligent Platforms’ moves around Ethernet in the industrial sector, Anger spoke at length about Skype, a company we’ve all heard about, but may not realize how much of a top tier telecommunications company they have become.

“Skype is the fastest growing telecommunications company in the world,” Anger said. “It has no infrastructure, but it is the third largest telecommunications provider. Skype has 8.1 million paying customers paying on average $96 a year for various services. In addition, 35 percent of Skype of users are business.”

With all these trends clearly pointing to a more connected future for industry, Anger added that you’re “screwed if you’re not standardizing on Ethernet.

The specific technological merits of Profinet that Anger referenced in his presentation at the forum, included:

  • Ability to deploy thousands of nodes with 1 ms updates;
  • Bumpless network recovery;
  • Rich alarm and diagnostics;
  • Easy node re-insertion; and 
  • A good ecosystem for support and multiple different vendor devices that support the protocol.

“It works better than anything out there,” Anger added.

>> David Greenfield, [email protected], is Media and Events Director for Automation World.

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