Automation World Survey: Ethernet and Wireless in the Plant

As this survey moves into its fourth consecutive year, the impacts Ethernet is having on industrial plant operations are becoming more evident.

Automation World Survey: Ethernet and Wireless in the Plant
Automation World Survey: Ethernet and Wireless in the Plant

In the industrial sector, widespread adoption of any new technology is slow compared with the consumer sector. The reasons for this, ranging from cost and regulatory compliance issues to safety and culture, are readily apparent. What is not so easily seen are the ground-level impacts—the day-to-day changes that take place over time that result in systemic change throughout industry.

Now that Automation World and Moxa have been conducting the “Ethernet and Wireless in the Plant” survey for four consecutive years, some significant changes surrounding the use of Ethernet on the plant floor are becoming noticeably highlighted.

Beyond spotlighting those year-over-year changes, this year’s survey also marks the appearance of a few new questions. These questions were added to reflect the new challenges and sources of influence the implementation of Ethernet has created across the industrial sector. Also considered is the advance of the Industrial Internet of Things, for which the introduction of Ethernet on the plant floor paved the way.

The graphics that follow highlight key results from this year’s survey results.


Where Respondents Use Ethernet
Though industrial applications of Ethernet have remained stable over the past few years, there have been some significant changes in two specific areas: wireless and shop floor to enterprise connectivity. In 2012, only 35 percent of respondents were using wireless in the plant. This year, that number stands at 50 percent. Though not growing as dramatically, use of wireless in the front office has also grown significantly since 2012, when 52 percent of respondents noted use of wireless in front office operations. That number is now at 60 percent. Growing more slowly is the application that, for many, marked the first foray of Ethernet into the plant: connecting shop floor systems to the enterprise. In 2012, 56 percent of respondents noted having this type of Ethernet connectivity. In 2015, 61 percent of respondents now have this in place.

Installation and Maintenance
The point of this question was to determine where the influence around Ethernet truly rests in industrial organizations. Is it in the plant or is it in corporate IT? Interviewing people for numerous articles on this topic over the years has shown widely varying anecdotal evidence to support the influence of both groups. This survey helps highlight how that sphere of influence has evolved over the years, with the biggest change being the influence of IT. In 2012, 31 percent of respondents said their company’s IT department was in charge of plant-floor Ethernet installation and maintenance. Today, only 19 percent say the same. There are many possible reasons for this, ranging from large-scale cross-training of IT personnel in plant floor operations (and vice versa) to direct Ethernet network training for plant floor personnel. Also interesting is the growing influence of staff engineers and system integrators in Ethernet installation and maintenance activities.

Current Status of Ethernet Adoption
Responses in this category have remained fairly static, but two developments became apparent this year. One makes it clear that most industrial plants have now adopted Ethernet use to one degree or another. In 2012, 26 percent of respondents noted they were just beginning to adopt Ethernet. In 2015, only 14 percent say the same. Likewise, in 2012, 22 percent of respondents said they have connected almost everything in the plant possible with Ethernet. Today, 28 percent say this. This year’s survey also marked the introduction of two new response options to this question: “Don’t currently use Ethernet, but eventually plan to” and “We don’t use Ethernet and we don’t plan to.” Responses to these options underscore the widespread use of Ethernet in industry noted above, with 6 percent saying they eventually plan to use Ethernet and just 3 percent saying they have no plans to use it.

Protocols
No major changes here over the past four years except to underscore that the biggest protocols continue to grow larger. The three protocols with the largest numbers of users in 2012 remain the largest in 2015 and have grown the most over the years. In 2012, 18 percent of respondents used Profinet, 45 percent used Modbus TCP/IP and 56 percent used EtherNet/IP. Today those numbers stand at 25 percent, 52 percent and 62 percent, respectively. Worth noting is that use of standard Ethernet TCP/IP has remained relatively static over time, dropping slightly from 72 percent in 2012 to 69 percent in 2015.

How Will Ethernet in the Plant Change Over the Next 5 Years?
Now that we’re almost five years out since the first time we asked this question, it’s interesting to note that only one response option has changed significantly: the convergence of IT and OT (operations technology) networks. In 2012, only 36 percent said they expected this to occur in the next five years. Today, 49 percent concur with this viewpoint. This effect could be caused by the same IT/OT cross-training efforts ongoing for the past few years that also impacted this year’s “Installation and Maintenance” responses (see above).

The Internet of Things Factor
When it comes to change, few technology trends have had as much impact on industry as has the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT). The last technology trend to have had this much impact was the introduction of Ethernet onto the plant floor—the widespread adoption of which helped make IIoT a possibility. Given the growing influence of this trend, we wanted to identify how various aspects of IIoT are being factored into future equipment purchases. According to respondents, the biggest influences are being seen in the purchase of equipment that adds instrumentation or connectivity to existing assets (61 percent); assets with built-in intelligence (56 percent); smart sensors, lights and panels (51 percent); and mobile devices (45 percent). Given the low percentage of manufacturers that have thus far gotten onboard with Big Data programs (see “Big Data Dilemma”), it’s not surprising that only 29 percent of respondents to this survey noted use of cloud-based platforms for data analysis.

Selection Criteria
When it comes to the factors that influence reader selection of Ethernet networking devices and systems, only one area had a noticeable change since 2012: recommendation from peers. Response to this option dropped from 16 percent in 2012 to 9 percent in 2015, most likely reflecting company-based supplier preferences and specific application needs. Another potential contributing factor to this drop is the lack of time and opportunity for plant-floor engineers to consult with peers due to the industry-wide decrease of on-staff engineering resources over the past two decades. Also worth noting is that this year’s survey introduced a new answer option for respondents. That option is interoperability, and it ranked very high, with 56 percent of respondents noting its importance. In fact, it was the second highest rated response, following only reliability (71 percent) and ranking ahead of price (51 percent).

Influencers
One of the new questions added this year sought to determine what titles or departments are having the most influence on the selection and implementation of plant-floor Ethernet. Gaining better insight into this question is critical to determining how the balance between IT and OT groups is playing out over time. According to 57 percent of respondents, plant managers still hold sway over this decision, followed by project managers at 36 percent, and the IT department at 31 percent.

Biggest Challenges to Ethernet Adoption
Another new question added to this year’s survey sought to identify what our readers perceive as being the most difficult issues associated with Ethernet implementation on the plant floor. According to respondents, the top issues are the cost of upgrading/replacing legacy equipment (55 percent), security concerns (51 percent), lack of qualified skills and training (43 percent), and lack of common communication standards (35 percent). Increasing examples of industry partnerships around communication standards are helping to address the communication standards issue. The most recent example of this is the partnership between Profinet and CC-Link IE to “enable transparent and easy bi-directional communication between CC-Link IE and Profinet devices through standardized interfaces.”
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