INFRASTRUCTURE: Network Management Struggles At Grassroots Level

Though still in relative infancy, there’s a turf struggle in network management, suggests Ed Nabrotzky, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada-based group product manager for network-connectors supplier Molex Inc. (www.molex.com), Lisle, Ill.

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The current skirmish line? “IT [information technology] managers are penetrating the plant-floor space and making security and purchasing decisions that control engineers historically have made,” he says.

Gone are the days when “you had a couple of control engineers building a network and keeping it that way for 10 years,” he notes. They’ve been replaced by continuous update or improvement of networks, which has “created a whole new philosophy: industrial IT.” That’s led to outsourcing beyond the factory floor to top-end vendors such as Cisco and Microsoft, or simply a company’s IT department, Nabrotzky observes. And that represents loss of control by manufacturing engineers. “Outsiders now own that part of the IT system on the factory floor. They also own firewalls and security,” he remarks.

Outside control may cause problems. For example, “in the oil patch, it’s very common for a systems integrator to do work at distance,” Nabrotzky explains. But that arrangement becomes “squishy” with new security requirements. “It can pinch vendor management,” he says. That means more constraints on users, but now, from the IT administrator.

Surprisingly, though, with IT’s venture onto the factory floor, Nabrotzky sees “more of a retreat of manufacturing types into production—[and] not trying to learn about IT.” He notes that this retreat accelerated in recent months, due in part to resource cutting by companies. In some organizations, though, he’s seen “IT folks trying to learn about manufacturing and its needs.” That focus is about finding “what does it mean for reliability, availability and security—the three big issues between IT and the plant floor.”

Nabrotzky suggests that IT could and will be running the supervisory level of the plant. But in his view, “IT has [already] won—and the vendors support that.”

Still, things must be measured at the most basic level on the factory floor, where advances are occurring through wireless and intelligent-sensors networks. “Either controls engineers are going to have to get on their game and manage the complexity of the networks—or IT departments are going to have to learn about the real-time reliability and availability of plant-floor production equipment,” Nabrotzky says.

Regardless, the manufacturing game requires acquiring and using actionable information. “But people must change to fit the system,” Nabrotzky comments. If desire for more information causes networks to be brought so far forward in production, he wonders if “IT may be right in saying you need to change the way you’re making these things, to fit IT policies.

Meanwhile, innovations still come to the floor. One Nabrotzky sees in network management is integration of old safety hardwired systems into networks. “We’re very early on. Automotive is going there first.” Yet another innovation he notes is wireless. With it, Nabrotzky forecasts that industrial Bluetooth “will affect design of machines, to make them more modular.” Another innovation is power over Ethernet, or POE. “In the industrial world, there’s talk about getting data and power combined,” he comments.

Ethernet and power

Three data-power-combined philosophies exist. One is that POE is available through standard means of energy transmission. “This means going to different types of connectors and wires. But that could be an impediment,” he remarks. The second philosophy is EOP, or Ethernet over power. That requires answering this question, according to Nabrotzky, “Can we take our existing power lines and multiplex Ethernet data over them?” Because of the availability of power lines, “this may be the way we ‘Ethernetize’ our plants.

The final philosophy he notes is E&P, or Ethernet and power physically combined. Nabrotzky believes this is “idiot proof.” Data and power would not be electrically coupled, he explains, but would use different wire strands in the cable.

Whatever changes are occurring, though, the IT-manufacturing tussle remains. But, Nabrotzky asserts, “Someone has to manage the IT complexity at the grassroots in the plant.” What’s not to understand about that, but who will do it?

C. Kenna Amos, ckamosjr@earthlink.net, is an Automation World Contributing Editor

Molex Inc.
www.molex.com
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