Future-Proof Industrial Networks

  • Post category:PI NEWS
  • Reading time:5 mins read

It’s an exciting time to be involved in industrial automation. New solutions are taking shape and stand to make automation networks easier to manage, faster to run, and most importantly, provide value like never before. Concepts like the ‘Industrial Internet of Things’, ‘Big Data’, and ‘IT/OT Convergence’ are making headlines and the race is on for companies to leverage each in order to gain a sustainable competitive advantage. There’s no silver bullet, but industrial networks play a key role in turning these concepts into reality.

Industrial networks are the humble foundation upon which an automation system is built. Often taken for granted, once a network is designed, installed, and commissioned, there are other tasks engineers must tend to, not least of which include keeping their plant running at optimum efficiency. So, in reality there are two points in the life of an industrial network where it gets the most attention: first, during specification, and later if something goes wrong.

Choosing a Network

Choosing an industrial network, it turns out, is only a trivial task if it is allowed to become one. Many questions arise when a new automation system is specified. “Which suppliers am I already familiar with?” “What new technologies are out there?” “How much is all of this going to cost?” But rarely does someone ask the question, “Which industrial network should I choose?” The answer to this question should be easy, but unfortunately often is not because even deeper questions arise. “What speeds and determinism are needed?” “Will other protocols run on the same network infrastructure?” “Are extras like functional safety or wireless relevant?” Now, more than ever however, the question of which industrial network you choose is one not to be overlooked.

This is because industrial automation is currently on the cusp of a transformation. There is no need to elaborate on the ways the IIoT might change industry. Enough has been said on that topic already. Instead, the focus turns to the eventual conclusion of all of this prognostication: future-proofing. Nobody truly knows how all of this IIoT business will shake out. But like the foundation for a home, independent of future renovations made to the house, if the foundation is solid, it will not matter.

Since the winners and losers in the race to IIoT dominance remain uncertain, a future-proof industrial network is one that allows you to ‘have your cake and eat it too’. In other words, it should be robust yet flexible. Robustness means an industrial network can handle whatever timing requirements are thrown at it, no matter how demanding. Flexibility means an industrial network is not just a network unto itself (like traditional fieldbuses), but an infrastructure for other protocols as well. That is the key point with regards to IIoT uncertainty. As IT networks and OT networks converge, IT protocols are finding their way onto OT networks. But which ones? There is a myriad of them. As long as those protocols are open standards, to a future-proof industrial network, it shouldn’t matter.

If Something Breaks

The other point in the lifecycle of an industrial network when it receives attention is if something goes wrong. Nine times out of ten, the root cause of network downtime is due to poor policies and procedures. For example: installation policies. In some companies, the control engineers are responsible for the entire automation system, including network installation. In others, it is the electrician’s duty, or the IT department’s job to install the cabling. Not following proper procedures leads to wires without shielding, insulation being cut off, bending radii limits exceeded, poor grounding, and the list goes on. This is one reason why we at PROFIBUS/PROFINET International (PI) continue to put so much effort into our Design, Installation, and Commissioning Guidelines for PROFINET. Another example of following poor procedures is how people treat the network. OT networks are not the same as IT networks. Take security, for instance. In IT networks the priorities are: 1. Confidentiality. 2. Integrity. 3. Availability. In OT networks, the priorities are reversed: 1. Availability. 2. Integrity. 3. Confidentiality. Proper training is required to ensure that industrial networks are not only designed, installed, and commissioned correctly but that they are also treated properly.

Further Future-Proofing

If robustness and flexibility are the keys to a future-proof industrial network then there is one technology on the horizon that stands to make a big impact: Time Sensitive Networking (TSN). Robustness and flexibility in PROFINET is nothing new. From the outset, the protocol was created to be not only fast and deterministic for control, but an open network for other standard protocols. Need microsecond-level speeds? Just use IRT (Isochronous Real Time). Need an open infrastructure for TCP/IP or OPC UA? No sweat. But now, the IEEE organization is taking many of the concepts formalized in PROFINET IRT and standardizing them in a new version of Ethernet called TSN. Therefore, companies looking to future-proof their industrial networks even further should choose a network that plans to utilize TSN from the device level, to the machine level, up to the plant level. The technology will not be available tomorrow, but look for it in the coming months and years. It provides future converged IT/OT networks a harmonized footing and eases possible pain points by providing robustness and flexibility.