Communication between devices is something we take for granted in the office environment. Laptops or PCs are all networked and smart consumer devices are widely used both at the office and in personal life. The trend to connect devices so as to enable sharing of information is also being seen in the industrial environment. More and more industrial automation components are shipped with networking capabilities and more of these devices are actually being networked by machine builders and end users.
So what are the benefits of investing in networked automation devices and industrialised infrastructure? Increasing connectivity on the factory floor enables better access to production data, which can lead to increased efficiency, less downtime and an overall increase in productivity. If machine operators or supervisors can easily access machinery data from a network, then (potential) problems can be identified quickly and counteracted, limiting the impact to the overall production line.
The choice of communication technology is varied, extensive and evolving. For new factories or plants, end users need to assess which technology is best suited to their particular application, how extensively the network should be deployed, how to secure confidential data and how the shop floor network can be linked to the enterprise environment. This open sharing of data internally through integration of traditionally separate networks is increasingly important and will maximize the benefits of an industrial network.
Battle lines are drawn
Currently, two main technologies are battling it out in the industrial communication space. First, there are fieldbus technologies, which are well established and have a large installed base in existing factories. These technologies were developed during the 1980’s and adopted early 1990’s. They are easy to use but offer limited data speed and connectivity to the enterprise level.
Second, there is Ethernet, which can either be adopted in the standard office TCP/IP flavor or from a host of industrial variants. This technology, which was adopted in industrial environments later than fieldbus, offers faster transmission speeds and can be easily connected to a larger organizational networking structure. Some industrial variants are also tailored to meet the specific requirements of applications, such as very high speed data rates.
The other option, which to date is yet to be widely adopted in industry, is wireless communication. Wireless offers flexibility and can reduce costs through less cabling. However, there are concerns around data security and the suitability of wireless networking in a factory environment, where any breaks in connection could be life threatening.
Together with the well-known conservatism in industry when adopting new technologies, wireless use is likely to be limited to monitoring applications where Ethernet and fieldbus are not viable options. This will include remote locations or moving machinery parts that aren’t conducive to having cabling in tow.
To date, the earlier release and adoption of fieldbus technologies has maintained a large installed base of connected industrial automation devices. However, as the benefits of Ethernet and its industrial variants become more widely known, this technology will erode the market share of new devices connected using fieldbus. Today, the new connected devices ratio is about 75:25 fieldbus to Ethernet. This is projected to be closer to 70:30 within five years.
For more on this topic, click here to access the May 16, 2013, on-demand webinar with a presentation from and discussion with Mark Watson.