Robust Networks Become Essential To Running Plants

Control and Information Technology have become collaborative partners—like it or not—as industrial networks bring efficiency to plants.

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In the Obama Administration, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel is known for saying, “Never waste a crisis.” The same might be said for the way the crisis of a recession forced plant managers to become more efficient. One silver lining around the dark financial mess of recent years is the shift to greater automation efficiencies. And one notable example is the proliferation of extensive and robust industrial networks connecting plants.

During the recession, corporate executives put pressure on plant managers to make operations more efficient. One of the results has been the expansion of industrial networks that are often connected to the business side of the organization. One of the consequences is the proliferation of Ethernet and greater collaboration—painful as it may be—between plant control and enterprise information technology (IT).

Plants are increasingly using one network to carry all data, whether it’s information from the PLC or from safety configurations and warnings. And plants are moving to greater standardization—using existing standards—for efficiency. “The recession has been an impetus for manufacturers to network their plants,” says Paul Didier, solution architect for manufacturing at Cisco Systems Inc., the San Jose, Calif.-based network equipment provider. “Plant managers have to rely more and more on their plants being inter-networked while using standard networking.”

Another networking trend is the tendency to choose upgrades and greater networking over new systems. “Rather than putting in a whole new system, plants are looking at doing upgrades. During the recession, upgrades became more popular than new systems,” says Jason Russell, president of control systems integrator Russell Automation Inc., in Vancouver, Wash. “They’re not going to rip out the old stuff. They want to upgrade their processors and use Ethernet as the backbone.”

Ethernet ubiquity

“Ethernet has been the standard for business networking for years, and the growing use of EtherNet/IP (a network protocol promulgated by ODVA, the former Open DeviceNet Vendors Association) for control has enabled network convergence between manufacturing and enterprise networks. We’ve seen this convergence in pharma, pulp and paper, automotive and food and beverage,” says Gregory Wilcox, development manager for networks at Rockwell Automation Inc., the Milwaukee-based automation supplier. “One of the benefits is the ability to share best practices between control and IT. You can have a technician troubleshoot not just enterprise, but also the industrial network.”

Marty Jansons, network consultant at automation vendor Siemens Industry Inc., in Norcross, Ga., says, “Without a doubt, Ethernet is becoming more and more a first choice in installation, though Profibus is not going away anytime soon. With Ethernet, you can just use your laptop and it gives you more bandwidth. You can have diagnostics, Internet, more protocol and more items going over the cable. And it allows you to be more decentralized.”

While EtherNet/IP has gained traction in North America, Europe is still seeing plenty of Profinet. “Our customers are very interested in Ethernet-based solutions at the upper end—EtherNet/IP in North America and Profinet in Europe—plus AS-Interface as the sensor and safety solution,” says Helge Hornis, manager of the Intelligent Systems Group at components vendor Pepperl+Fuchs Inc., in Twinsburg, Ohio. “Profibus is still relatively strong, but DeviceNet appears to be declining as far as any new installations are concerned.”

While convergence between the plant network and the enterprise system comes with benefits, it also prompts age-old turf battles between control and IT. “As soon as you say Ethernet, it brings up the clash between IT and control engineers,” says Chris Vitale, product manger at automation components supplier Turck Inc., in Minneapolis. “The control engineer is working with the assumption of milliseconds or less for motion. The IT guy is worried about firewalls, Internet security and moving large amounts of data.”

While IT often voices worries about the business network getting bogged down by data waves from control, it’s actually the plant that is likely to suffer from data clogging in a shared network. “We were on a plant network that was fine for months. Then we saw some impact from too much data,” says Ben Orchard, application engineer at automation supplier Opto22, in Temecula Calif. “We asked IT to run some sniffs on their network and it turns out users on the business side were watching YouTube during lunch.” Orchard notes that he’s never seen plant operations flood the business side. “IT is worried about the industrial side consuming the entire network, but it’s not happening. Never.”

One of the advantages of a fully networked plant is that you can run a wide range of disparate data along one cable. Plus, using one network forces a peace settlement between IT and control. “One way to solve the conflict between control and IT is to merge the networks,” says Colin Winchester, vice president of operations at supplier Software Toolbox Inc., in Matthews, N.C.  “When the factory and the business networks are combined, one group—IT—knows the network from end-to-end and supports the needs of the engineers as well as the corporate need for security.”

While IT is concerned with security, some believe the industrial network doesn’t face the same degree of risk as the business network. Plus, the plant network cannot be guarded in the same manner as the business network. “IT is very concerned about safety, but you can’t shut down the plant to install a patch,” says Arves Stolpe, product manager for Compact RIO at automation supplier National Instruments Corp., in Austin, Texas. Stolpe contends that industrial networks don’t face the same dangers as IT networks. “One place where we’re winning is we’re using real-time operating systems. They’re not targeted by hackers—they’re going after Microsoft Windows.”

One recent concern in the automation industry is the increasing use of cheap hardware, as plant operators cut costs by turning to an increasing supply of inexpensive products. “We’ve seen low-cost competitors coming in,” says Jim Toepper, product manager at Moxa Inc., an industrial networking products company in Brea, Calif. “There are major quality issues. These guys come in with a cheap price. The products may work for a little while, but heat and cold can affect those products negatively.”

Cheap hardware

Another risk is commercial hardware that is appropriate for the office, but inappropriate for the plant. “You have to make sure the products are robust,” says Siemens’ Jansons. “There will be times when control uses commercial hardware, but that’s usually without IT approval. In some areas it will work just fine, but in other areas it’s a problem.”

The simple rule is that the possibility of hardware failure in the plant comes with higher consequences than failure in the office network. “Robust hardware is extremely important,” says Boyce Baine, IT specialist and applications engineer at Software Toolbox. “The risk of failure is a greater cost than the price of the latest technology. On the business side, they may take some risks with cheaper hardware, but with an industrial network, you don’t want to risk it.”

Even if plants spend on robust and expensive hardware for their networks, the plant-wide industrial networks reduce operational costs with efficiencies. Plants are moving away from proprietary vendor-specific systems and are instead choosing systems that match the best protocol to the specific function.

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To read the article accompanying this story, go to www.automationworld.com/feature-7649.

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To read the article accompanying this story, go to www.automationworld.com/feature-7650.

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