5 Ways Industrial Communications Connect the Digital Enterprise

May 10, 2017
How the connectivity provided by advanced industrial communications over industrial Ethernet is enabling the emergence of a new era in industry.

So much has been written about the Internet of Things (IoT) and its subset, the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), that the hype seems endless. No wonder Gartner’s Hype Cycle ranked it as one of 2016’s most ascendant emerging technologies for the third year in a row. But it does boggle the mind to consider the potential that billions of devices capable of communicating with each other—most bypassing humans altogether—have to unleash new and transformative business models.

Often, however, a key enabler gets overlooked: the digital thread interconnecting all those “things.” This digital thread is the highly available, secure and ubiquitous connectivity provided by advanced industrial communications over industrial Ethernet, an open global standard.

This thread consists of real-time, continuously updated information that runs end-to-end through all industrial operations, even beyond walls to the ecosystem of suppliers and customers. It provides critical stakeholders with consistent visibility anytime, anywhere to operational data to make faster, better informed decisions. Everyone involved can be more aware, responsive and decisive as needed.

It’s important to realize that industrial connectivity isn’t the best-effort Wi-Fi like you have in your home, office or local café. In those cases, if data packets get lost or held up due to network congestion, other packets are sent and latencies of a few seconds are not problematic or even noticed.

When industrial machinery is involved, however, network data communications must be highly deterministic. This means that when packets containing commands to open or close valves, switches or other devices are sent, they get where they’re going quickly and when the receiving device or devices expect them. If a command doesn’t arrive in time, then a machine’s cycle can be disrupted, stopping production or worse. If a valve isn’t closed when it’s supposed to be, safety can be at stake.

Here are five ways that advanced industrial communications can best interconnect the digital enterprise and, by extension, the enterprise with the IIoT:

  1. Redundancy. In the event of a fault, a plant’s high-availability industrial communication can take over automatically without any production disruptions or safety concerns. System redundancy involves backup systems operating in parallel with immediate failover should the primary system go down. Media redundancy provides alternative communication paths, should primary ones be disrupted.
  2. Network segmentation. Virtual local area networks (VLANs) enable the partitioning of one physical LAN into several smaller, logical LANs. These LANs help separate the networks connecting OT automation systems from IT systems for better security and optimized real-time performance. In case of a disruption, especially a security breach, the compromised LAN can be quickly isolated until the issue is addressed.
  3. Bridging IT and OT. It’s good to connect IT and OT environments in secure and accountable ways that respect the strengths and requirements of each. A robust network backbone should be established to create a structured and reliable interface between dedicated production and office networks. The former will include cell-to-machine and shop-floor-to-cell sub-networks, all with specific IP addressing for fully managed components and systems, plus the use of real-time, deterministic communication protocols.
  4. Facilitated data interchange. Production often has varied data interfaces due to field-level devices from different suppliers. These elements must communicate their data to—and often get instructions from—higher-level control systems and human-machine interfaces (HMIs), web interfaces, PCs, tablets and even smartphones. OPC UA, an open standard, allows field devices to communicate with each other across Ethernet, thanks to its underlying TCP/IP communication protocol.
  5. Wireless, near and far. Wireless industrial connectivity is growing fast. It offers greater configuration flexibility and speed and eliminates long lengths of costly cabling. It includes low-power, short-range near-field communication (NFC) technology used in radio-frequency identification (RFID) solutions for product authentication and asset tracking. Another NFC use is for machine diagnostics. Longer-range wireless using 802.11n Wi-Fi can facilitate communications up to 300 ft between access points, while 802.16 WiMAX has a range up 30 miles. 3G and 4G LTE cellular and satellite communications can handle even greater distances.

It’s important to emphasize that, although the hype around the IIoT focuses on billions of interconnected devices, production environments will interconnect devices numbering many orders of magnitude less: from hundreds to many thousands of devices only.

Those must stay segregated and protected from IIoT’s billions of devices, because any one of them can and will harbor malware of some sort or another. That’s why always-updated cybersecurity protections are critical and defense-in-depth, layered strategies remain best practices.

Today’s digital enterprises, supported by advanced industrial communications, can simplify operations and lower both capital and operating costs. They can vastly improve the reliability, visibility and security of dynamic production environments to boost availability and asset utilization.

Ultimately, these digital enterprises will enjoy distinct competitive advantages. For example, with data running end-to-end through their operations, they can execute their business strategies faster, gain performance feedback and insights sooner, respond to market changes and opportunities more quickly, and improve their time to market with new products and services.

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