Column: Networks rule in manufacturing

A little over 10 years ago when I was a sales engineer in the controls business, the manager of controls engineering at a large plant told me that there would never be a wire connecting two controllers in his plant.

While he was a good enough engineer to change with the times, I bet there are still a number of his sympathizers out there today.

His concerns were well founded. Foremost was security. The thought of an operator remote from a machine turning it off and on while someone else might be in a vulnerable position is scary. That’s just if they are doing honest work. What if it were a disgruntled employee attempting sabotage or a competitor hacking in?

The other problem was complexity. Networking took a lot of engineering time in the late 1980s. In 1992, it still just didn’t make sense to him. By the time I left to become an editor in 1998, controls engineers and information technology (IT) technicians in that plant were diligently working together to connect all the programmable logic controllers (PLCs) to personal computers (PCs) in order to monitor maintenance activity, and to lay the groundwork for overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) analysis.

Converging forces

What changed? Two forces converged to turn this thinking around and led to the networked factory. The manufacturing business model evolved to the point that real-time data from manufacturing, be it discrete, batch or process, was required to feed customer and supplier response systems. Companies found it impossible to compete in many industries without that foundation. Technology advances led to the distributed control architecture widely used today that depends upon robust, high-speed networks to keep plants humming and simultaneously reduce costs.

This issue examines some manufacturing communication strategies and how several companies have profited from adopting new technologies. It’s amazing how quickly and quietly Ethernet has been adopted on the factory floor. Throughout the 1990s, companies and users either lined up behind one of the fieldbuses or argued for another, industry-wide standard. Yet, today almost all automation suppliers support Ethernet—sometimes connecting to Profibus or DeviceNet networks and sometimes used alone down to the input/output (I/O) device level.

There are still issues with Ethernet, to be sure. Some detractors try to obfuscate the issue by talking about various protocols. One of the beauties of Ethernet is its ability to transmit many protocols simultaneously. The important thing is that two devices that need to talk to each other have the same protocol embedded.

Another issue is physical connection. ARC Advisory Group Senior Analyst Harry Forbes points out in the Industry View column on p. 61 that many feel the standard, commercial RJ-45 connector is just not rugged enough for industrial use. Suppliers have formed two camps promoting solutions. One proposes encapsulation within an Ethernet-standard RJ-45 connector, while the other is pushing an industrial M12 connector. Meanwhile, many companies are not waiting for an outcome to this debate but are forging ahead with installations.

With this issue, we also introduce three contributing editors who will be helping us get the automation message out. Kenna Amos, Rob Spiegel and Carol Wilson have extensive experience covering technology and business. We were thrilled to be able to get people of their caliber to be a part of the team. We think we have a great mix of practical manufacturing and quality journalism experience to bring you information that will help you compete in this century.

Let me know what you think. I love feedback. Send comments, suggestions or criticisms to gmintchell@ automationworld.com.

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