Industrial Networks: Should You Switch from Copper to Fiber?

Aug. 6, 2013
Replacing copper industrial network cables with fiber is not simply a high-class upgrade. Benefits range from mitigating electrical interference to protecting the network from environmental operating issues.

As the networks connecting devices and systems on the plant floor become increasingly critical to day-to-day production operations and the manufacturing business itself, more attention is being paid to the physical aspects of the networks used to transmit precious production and business data.

For many years, it's been pointed out that manufacturers should always specify industrial grade cabling for the applications. Now, some industrial users are going a step further and upgrading from industrial copper cabling to fiber cabling. The reason for making the switch vary, but some of the more often cited reasons include fiber’s ability to cover distances of up to 130kM continuously, well beyond copper’s maximum distance of 100m; it’s resistance to environmental factors and  electromagnetic interference; plus the fact that fiber is not confined by bandwidth and supports bi-directional transmission of data.

In lieu of full cabling replacement, there are methods available to convert and connect existing copper lines to fiber.

One vendor positioning itself as a resource for manufacturers looking to take this interim step is B&B Electronics Manufacturing Company. B&B recently released its iMcV-Giga FiberLinX-III gigabit intelligent Ethernet media converter, which is the third generation of the company’s FiberLinX family — a 10/100/1000Mbps copper to 1000Mbps fiber device that converts existing copper wiring-based networks to fiber optics. According to B&B, the iMcV-Giga FiberLinX-III securely transmits data from end to end over fiber (up to 100Km), which is well beyond copper’s distance limitation (328 ft., 100 m). A new single-wide module replaces the company’s previous dual-wide module so that the device now occupies only one slot to reduce the cost-per-slot in a multi-port chassis.

B&B says the iMcV-Giga FiberLinX-III is geared towards gigabit networking applications where there is a need to securely move large amounts of data over long distances of fiber with remote management. More importantly, beyond the previous generation’s role as an edge device only, the iMcV-Giga FiberLinX-III can reportedly now operate like a switch and can serve as a central office infrastructure connection. The new model also features Data Analysis, a software feature for performing channel line rate tests and round-trip delay tests.

Multiple gigabit fiber types are available, including Multi-Mode, Single-Mode and Single-Strand Fiber (SSF). SSF can effectively double the capacity of installed fiber and allow the network to utilize bundles of fiber and provide connectivity to multiple subscribers. Standard features such as bandwidth scalability and host/remote management over fiber are still available.

The iMcV-Giga FiberLinX-III may be installed as a pair (Host/Remote) or as a standalone unit, connected to another gigabit device.

When asked about industries that are the primarily making the switch from copper to fiber, Susan Stanley, training manager at B&B Electronics, says that, so far, it has principally been Internet service providers and the telecom industry.

“Once the high demand for Internet use and bandwidth grew exponentially, those industries had to find a way to sell and manage bandwidth, so there was a need for products that could offer that kind of configuration, in addition to being an intelligent product, which would allow those industries to ‘see’ what was going on remotely at the customer end at all times,” she says. 

Though the operations ISPs and the telecom industries are quite different from manufacturing, it’s not too hard of a stretch to see fiber’s value in some production applications, especially widely dispersed sites like refineries and chemical plants. When large distances exist between devices, “fiber is the only answer to covering those great distances, providing the secure host/remote management system necessary for the integrity of the line,” Stanley adds.

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