One Network to Rule Them All?
In my schooling, I studied physics for my major. The Holy Grail in this field of study is a Theory of Everything: a unifying theory of the forces that govern quantum mechanics and those that govern relativity (gravity). It makes me ponder if there will someday be a unification of industrial networks; one network to rule them all: from the IT side to the OT side. Maybe this will come to pass –though I expect it to be a very long way away. Then again, maybe not…
Right Tool for the Right Task
Quantum mechanics and relativity separately have enabled immense advances in our civilization. Each is a different tool to solve different problems. The same situation exists in industrial networking today: different tools, purpose-built for different use-cases. This strategy has certainly worked well for the most successful network in the history of humanity: the Internet. Here we use specialized protocols like FTP, HTTP, or VoIP, to accomplish different tasks.
Similarly on the OT side, we have specialized technologies like IO-Link, PROFIBUS, PROFINET, omlox, and others under the PI organization umbrella. These ‘others’ include the Standard Robot Command Interface (SRCI) or Modular Type Package (MTP). But just because these technologies accomplish diverse tasks, doesn’t mean they can’t be combined to solve unique use-cases.
IO-Link + PROFINET: this is an obvious combination. IO-Link enables intelligent sensors to provide semantically rich data beyond a simple process value. PROFINET can then transport this data with high determinism, whilst enabling other protocols to coexist plainly on the same Ethernet-based infrastructure. It is the perfect pair for a myriad of use-cases: OEE tracking, predictive maintenance, remote monitoring, and more.
PROFINET + SRCI: again, another obvious combination. The SRCI enables the programming of robots directly in the PLC. It harmonizes all the various commands from different robot vendors into a single library. It is embraced by all the major robot companies extant today. The usage of robots in industrial automation continues to grow rapidly. Therefore, the combination of easy robot programming (SRCI) with take-it-for-granted high speed communication (PROFINET) makes perfect sense.
SRCI + omlox: here we can begin to solve unique use-cases. It’s not just stationary robots that have grown in usage, but also Automated Mobile Robots (AMRs). To track their location in a vendor-neutral way, omlox specifies open interfaces for highly-accurate, robust, location tracking via Ultra-Wideband. Combined with the SRCI to easily program the robots, we now have helped make AMR integration easier.
omlox + IO-Link: Again, here we can solve unique challenges with open standards. The combination of omlox with RFID tags can be thought of as ‘two sides of the same coin’: omlox for location data and RFID for identification data. But in brownfield installations where many tags already exist, another solution presents itself: RFID tag readers with IO-Link. Combine these with omlox, and now these data can be linked to both identify and track the location of tags rather transparently.
Will we ever see ‘one network to rule them all’? Perhaps. It certainly would be an elegant solution. But it begs the question: would it be practical? So, perhaps not. In the meantime, just as physicists have looked to combine theories as a bridge towards a Theory of Everything, so do we in industrial networking begin to combine technologies. The principal difference: it’s not just theory, it’s reality.