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Rail and Production Technology Parallels

The rail transportation and industrial production sectors are very different in seemingly every way — until it comes to automation technology.

The main entrance to InnoTrans 2016
The main entrance to InnoTrans 2016

InnoTrans is a massive rail industry event held every other year in Berlin. This year’s event took place the week of September 19 and featured nearly 3,000 exhibitors from 60 countries and drew well over 100,000 visitors from more than 100 countries. At an event like this, everything that has to do with the rail business is showcased—from floor coverings and seats to passenger entertainment and rail worker safety.

Though many automation technology suppliers were present, InnoTrans was much like the oil and gas event ONS in that automation providers comprised only a small percentage of overall exhibitors. While speaking with several of these vendors at the event, I found it interesting to learn how much overlap there is in the automation technologies applied by the rail industry and the production industries.

It’s easy to see how drives, motors and sensors would be key to both industry sectors (see the new sensor technology announced at InnoTrans), but the connection goes deeper than that. In fact, the Internet of Things (IoT) is having as much impact on the rail business as it is in industrial production. Furthermore, the main effects of this trend are being realized in the same three areas—predictive maintenance, operations optimization through big data analysis, and converting protocol communications to standard Ethernet.

Critical communication
Underlying this movement in both the rail and production industries are various networking communication devices. Richard Weatherburn of Belden noted that numerous industrial automation networking technologies are used in rail applications because of their designed resistance to various environmental factors as well as their electromagnetic capability factors. A further requirement deals with the ability to withstand specific levels of shock and vibration encountered consistently on the rails. The requirements here are detailed in the standard EN 50155, which looms large when it comes to technology deployed on rolling stock, i.e., any vehicle (locomotive, carriage, wagon, etc.) that travels on rails.

“The underlying technology and functionalities are the same, but the form factor for end use differs,” said Martin Jones, general manager for Moxa Europe. “For example, on rail industry rolling stock, M12 connectors are required because of the need to withstand shock and vibration. In the production industries, RJ45 connections are the preferred connector” because railway levels of shock and vibration are not an issue.

Jones highlighted Moxa’s TN-5516A-8PoE as an example of a managed Ethernet switch made for the rail industry. This switch features M12 connections. He noted that the company’s EDS line of managed switches uses the same internal technologies and offers the same functionalities in a rugged housing, but feature the production industry-acceptable RJ45 connections.

Like Moxa and Belden, communication, monitoring and control technology supplier Red Lion Controls showcased many of its technologies at InnoTrans that are also used in the production industries. Red Lion’s Stephen Fielding highlighted Red Lion’s rugged Graphite HMIs, Data Station Plus data collection and management device that features protocol conversion, and its 708M12 and 716M12 IP67-rated managed Ethernet switches. Like Moxa’s lines of switches for differing industry requirements, Red Lion offers IP67-rated managed Ethernet switches with RJ45 connections under in its FX2 series.

Internet of Things
Explaining the IoT trend in rail, Weatherburn said that IoT is increasing interest in greater connectivity for operations optimization reasons. It’s also driving a move away from proprietary protocols and toward greater use of standard Ethernet. He noted that this is particularly true in rail when it comes to the delivery of communications and entertainment for the railway customer, pointing out that the rail industry is looking to carry both sets of data over standard Ethernet. As a result, interest in time sensitive networking (TSN) is increasing to ensure that no communications are interrupted and that control/operations level data gets precedence.

Weatherburn highlighted Belden's Hirschmann MSP30 Layer 3 switch as an example of a technology that is used in both the rail and production industries. This switch can be installed centrally in a cabinet or remotely in distribution boxes to enable communication between physically separated networks. He also noted that it has built-in security to monitor access to the network.

Just as the production industries are focused on connecting legacy devices to Ethernet via couplers and gateways, Moxa’s Jones noted that Moxa’s ioPAC8000 can be used to connect legacy rail car two-wire networks to Ethernet. These programmable automation controllers “bring intelligence to the edge in legacy rail applications,” said Jones, underscoring how cutting edge applications such as edge computing are picking up speed in the rail industry just as they in manufacturing and processing.

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