Industrial Ethernet: IT Survival Kit

Whether you’re an IT pro working on a manufacturing process or you know someone in IT who is, keep this article handy and pass it on as needed. The advice presented here from manufacturing engineers and operators will help IT professionals not only survive, but thrive as they work on plant floor projects.

As an IT pro with an assignment somewhere in the heart of your company’s manufacturing process, you know the assignment is going to be challenging. Not necessarily due to technology, but because you’ll be working in an entirely different culture from that of IT. You may feel like the people around you are speaking a foreign language. Their words seem to convey that your ideas aren’t welcome, won’t work here, and might result in something really bad happening.

You wonder why they seem so filled with anxiety as you enter their realm. After all, you have the IT training, certifications and network experience in other parts of your enterprise that should work here, right?

Well, from an operation’s perspective that approach is simply wrong. While you do have a lot to bring to the party, the differences between working in manufacturing and in corporate IT are extreme and important. Take heed to the following advice and you’ll be on track to using your skills for the good of your company, meeting your goals and making some excellent friends in the process.

Listen to the man (and/or woman). The people who work in production have different goals. They may sometimes seem to work at a snail’s pace and other times run around with seemingly no rational explanation. For them it’s all about people, processes, and production. The people here place safety and uptime above all else. When they move like a snail, they are being very careful to ensure everyone’s safety; they know a small mistake can easily have huge consequences. When they’re running hard, they’re trying to minimize process downtime while also working hard to identify, isolate and repair problems that are slowing or halting production. So, when they’re not running fast, buy them a Coke and listen to them. They’ll help you understand what they just did and why. Instead of comparing their world to yours, try wearing their shoes for a bit and it will all sink in. Soon, you may find yourself moving at the same pace for the same reasons, and you’ll be able to use your skills to help meet a common set of goals to benefit your company.

Reach out… wider. Sometimes, small changes made in production processes can have a big effect immediately; but just as often they don’t show their full effect until third shift. By doing your part to plan carefully and involve everyone about what, when and how to improve the process, you’re more likely to find success and avoid problems due to others’ input.

Don’t touch that. A factory/plant can be a very dangerous place for those who aren’t accustomed to being there. Lines painted on the floor, signs hanging, closed and locked doors and your eyes and ears are often the only things keeping people from serious harm.  Network equipment often lives in a control cabinet where deadly high voltages exist that can easily jump an air gap.  Because of this danger, never point inside a control cabinet. Instead, keep your hands in your pockets and be sure to get personal safety training.

Leave some (control) for me. While you may have responsibility for some of the networks in an industrial space, the controls engineers, process engineers and maintenance people also need to be able to do their jobs, including using the network and making modest changes to add or remove a few devices quickly when you’re not available. Because they will use different network and device management tools than you, it’s important to work these differences out. Talk with them to anticipate what they will likely need to do, and enable them to do so. Otherwise, you’ll be the bottleneck when something goes wrong.

CLI doesn’t fly. The people working in production aren’t likely to be CCNA Certified and didn’t grow up knowing Command Line Interface (CLI —the long and complex sets of cryptic commands used by IT to set up and work with switches and routers). They aren’t bothered that you use it to do your job, but don’t use CLI or CCNA jargon or expect them to learn it anytime soon. The tools used on the plant floor are simpler and designed to perform mainstream industrial tasks.

Patches and reboots create the wrong kinds of excitement. While these may be frustrating in the enterprise space, they violate the two fundamental goals of the plant floor: safety and uptime.

What would happen if… Use this phrase every time you’re tempted to make any change to the network. People working in the industrial space always consider the effects of the most minor changes before trying them to ensure that people, processes and machines are safe and continue to function after the change.

Standard Ethernet does work here. Yes, the skills, knowledge, and experience you bring do have a place here. The Ethernet infrastructure in use on the plant floor should reflect the best practices from other parts of the enterprise.  There is a place here for subnets, VLANs, VPN, NAT, routing, QoS and many of the other things you know so well. Good, straightforward design plays well here so that others might maintain their process and use the network as a valuable tool and part of their mission-critical communications.  There is significantly less data here to push around, but priority, timing and reliable delivery is critical. If you learn a bit about these differences, you can jump right in and use your training to help others. Just keep a factory floor friend in the loop and keep listening to address their concerns.

Make it industrial. From routers, firewalls, switches and servers, to cables, connectors and cabinets, you need to choose things built to last. Most manufacturers expect their equipment to last more than 15 years and be built for maintainability and upgrades along the way. Devices with fans don’t last here. In many places, air conditioning doesn’t exist, and the energy from the process only adds heat to the already toasty summer days. Add in moisture, humidity, very high electromechanical noise, power fluctuations, shock and vibration and corrosive chemicals and you’re just getting started. The devices you use in the enterprise space won’t last here, but the good news is that there are a multitude of Industrialized Ethernet devices that will. Don’t believe the labels or vendor claims; read the spec sheets. If you’re not sure how “industrial” to make it, check the specs for your company’s PLC or DCS supplier and make sure your switches, routers, wireless equipment and security firewalls meet the same specs.  The same applies to cables and connectors. The specifications may look good while the commercial grade product is on the spool; but you need to know your performance will degrade significantly once it’s installed here.

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