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Era of Compatibility

Networks link factory to front office.

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The concept of seamless networking is becoming reality for more companies. Networks that link front office operations, such as ordering, with plant floor equipment are gaining acceptance. This helps companies streamline operations to cut costs and increase productivity. Enterprise-wide communications have been discussed for years, and many large corporations have been developing their networking and data management capabilities for years. However, it’s been expensive, keeping most firms on the sidelines.


“This was a very hot topic around 1997, but then, control systems could cost $500,000, and the MES (manufacturing execution system) had about the same price,” says Skip Hansen, I/O systems product manager for automation supplier Beckhoff Automation LLC, in Burnsville/>, Minn./>/>


But that is changing rapidly. Hardware and software prices continue to decline as performance rises, fostering a new level of interest. “Now, you can get packages from many vendors for a few thousand dollars,” says Randy Kondor, marketing vice president at Matrikon, another vendor based in Edmonton/>, Alberta/>, Canada/>/>. That’s helping bring this technology to the masses.


Another try


Things are changing even at the companies that have tied disparate operations together using enterprise resource planning (ERP) and MES for years. At some facilities, there’s a new focus on gaining more benefits from these technologies. “With a lot of customers, there’s a revival of interest. They’ve done some ERP, but often it hasn’t delivered as much as expected. There’s a resurgence in their integration programs as they attempt to unlock the capabilities of ERP,” says Francois Leclerc, product marketing manager at Honeywell Process Solutions, the Phoenix-based process controls supplier.


The adoption of standards is a key factor, making it simpler for different groups to communicate. Ethernet is taking over the factory, helped in part by variants now offering real-time capability. That makes it far easier to communicate with front offices. With that base established, a number of other standards are adding clarity and making it simpler to move useful data throughout the enterprise.


“Within the last two or three years, acceptance of standards like ISA-95 and the World Batch Forum has really risen. MIMOSA is also gaining a bit of steam,” says Kevin Tock, vice president of MES Business at automation software vendor Wonderware, of Lake Forest/>, Calif./>/> The Machinery Information Management Open Systems Alliance standards address operations and maintenance.


 Matrikon’s Kondor adds that the OPC Foundation has developed a number of standards that are in broad use. “The question is not whether companies support OPC (an open communication standard), but which portion they use. With OPC, you’ve got data available in a way that everyone agrees on,” he said.


Size matters


Many major technology changes occur at large companies, and the adoption of integrated corporate networks follows that trend. Most observers note that the expanse of a company and the amount of cash that it’s generating are among the key factors behind integration. When those parameters are high, it’s far easier to justify the cost of linking front office personnel who handle incoming and outgoing orders with the plant floor personnel who handle the materials tied to those orders.


“Size is a primary factor. In bigger plants, like a refinery or automotive facility where losing minutes means you’re losing serious cash, you almost always see tight links between IT (information technology) and manufacturing,” Kondor says. He adds that facilities that run 24/7 also link the two, since there’s no chance to catch up if there are unexpected shutdowns.


One of the biggest changes for corporations is the staggering number of connections needed to gather data from the plant floor. While front office connections are fairly closely tied to the number of people who have computers, most manufacturing facilities have dramatically more elements to connect.


“Node counts in factories gets into hundreds and thousands of nodes. That’s a staggering amount of new connections that IT has to manage, and they’re non-trivial because they often need to support the plant 24/7,” says Joe Kann, vice president of business development at supplier Rockwell Automation Inc., in Milwaukee/>/>.


Many companies are now linking operations, both remote facilities and contract suppliers that are located far from each other. That typically adds Internet communications to transmissions across the corporate network. “You definitely need the Internet. The volumes of data can be massive. In building automation, owners want access to surveillance cameras, which generate huge video files,” says Hansen, at Beckhoff.


Layered complexity


Whether or not the Web is involved, industrial systems have a number of aspects that make them complex. The more layers of software that are involved, the greater the number of variations developers have to deal with. “In the installations related to ERP, every one is different. Half have [ERP systems from] SAP (the German enterprise software vendor), but they use different versions. Often there’s middleware between us and SAP. We have to adapt to any technology that sits between the plant floor and the enterprise level,” says Wonderware’s Tock.


That’s compounded by the huge variety of technologies and protocols in manufacturing environments. Front office hardware typically consists of IBM personal computers (PCs), a few servers and storage systems, and possibly some personal computers from Apple. On the plant floor, just linking one aspect of a production line to the front office network is a major chore.


“Companies still have a hard time accomplishing this, some plants have, say, 18 types of machines, and they can’t get data up the line to their customer’s contract packaging equipment. Half of the machines in a typical packaging plant are older machines,” Hansen says. He notes that Beckhoff and others offer equipment that attaches to older machines to let them communicate on Ethernet and other networks.


One of the key reasons that it’s becoming easier to link IT and manufacturing is the shift to Ethernet-compatible offerings that have real-time capabilities. Many of these deterministic variants are quite compatible with basic Ethernet systems. But some take liberties with their claims of Ethernet compatibility, offering mainly hardware compatibility.


Corrupted stacks


“A number of Ethernet-based approaches have taken part of Ethernet, like the physical media, and to get real time or determinism, they corrupted the basic open stack. Using an unmodified stack is critical if you want to get all the benefits,” says Rockwell’s Kann.


After they have gone through the steps to make sure that data can move freely throughout the company, managers must figure out how to make sure that the data is useful. Strategies for sharing data involve many parameters, beginning with the ultimate goals of the corporation.


“Companies still have to make difficult decisions about how they do things. If they want to be a low-cost producer, they will make different decisions than if they want to be a premium player with a perception of high quality,” says Sean Robinson, global industry manager for Consumer Packaged Goods at vendor GE Fanuc Automation, in Foxboro/>, Mass./>/> For example, some companies may give local operators at remote plants high levels of autonomy, while others may decide that these managers may not always make decisions based on what’s best for the overall corporation, he explains.


That underscores a challenge that pops up any time data is shared. The more open the communications media, the greater the chance that someone can misdirect a message, either intentionally or unintentionally. “With real-time open systems and open technology, there’s an increased chance that the wrong people will get access to data, and also that the people who need data won’t be able to get it,” says Mark Wylie, industry marketing manager at Cisco Systems Inc., a San Jose, Calif., networking infrastructure company that partners with Rockwell.


Though the technical issues will be a key determinant for success or failure, observers note that the most complex issue involves linking the front office with the plant floor. In many facilities, the managers in these operations seem more like enemies than allies. “At some customers, the level of animosity between IT and manufacturing is so high you wonder if they’ll ever get through it. There’s no silver bullet,” Kann says.


Observers note that different groups come to the fore at different stages of the process. When technologies are being selected and installed, third-parties are often called in. “System integrators play a key role. They make sure everything happens,” Hansen says.


Once the hardware is up and running, the IT department is generally charged with making sure that the network operates efficiently. “IT can be the glue that ties things together, looking at the whole operation, including process flow and data mapping. They can make elegant choices in terms of minimizing duplication of effort,” Robinson says.


Team up for Success


Not surprisingly, those who have walked companies through the task of linking these groups together note that teamwork is a key to success. “Companies that create teams with automation and IT people working together see the biggest benefits,”  says Jeremy Bryant, network technology specialist at supplier Siemens Energy & Automation Inc., of Alpharetta/>, Ga./>/>


Another factor is to make sure that everyone understands that regardless of whether signals move across continents or simply across a small network, the adoption of transmission control protocol/Internet protocol (TCP/IP) protocols brings new concerns to the factory floor. Segments that never had concerns about privacy and protection must now put them front and center. “We still have a challenge with educating experts on how to make things secure,” Kondor says.




For more information, search keywords “networking” and “Ethernet” at





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