Silos Changing: Connecting industries

New ruggedised networks are plugging the factory floor directly into enterprise networks. Image courtesy of Patrick Hoesly

This week, Cambashi’s Dan Roberts discusses how the next generation of factory networks can support industry networks.

Experts at industry analyst and market consulting firm Cambashi contribute a regular blog for TM titled Silos Changing exploring how new software applications enable manufacturers to implement business initiatives for the new economy.

Factory floor equipment with programmable controls is becoming more standardised. The cost of sensors is dropping, standard hardware and software products are replacing customised solutions and standard networking solutions are being ruggedised for use in factories.

All these developments increase the level of flexibility in the factory floor, while lowering cost.

As industrial machinery becomes more intelligent, the advantage of connecting into the enterprise and technical networks increases. Production environments have traditionally rejected the idea of connecting to enterprise networks. The rationale is that bugs in enterprise networks cause some disruption, but bugs in production networks cause production downtime.

The fear is that connecting to enterprise networks increases the chance of expensive downtime. But even in production environments, managers are beginning to see the potential benefits – though few businesses are really taking full advantage of the level of intelligence and connectivity available.

We have written in previous blogs about leveraging the large amounts of data being collected by sensors on the factory floor.

Much has been written about the ability to make better decisions, based on more up-to-date data. Less has been written about the opportunity to optimise the industry network that designs, produces and sells the product.

The distinction is that these functions are not always in the same enterprise. Indeed, the greater opportunity includes the extended supply network. The ability to reconnect design and manufacturing, even where one function has been outsourced offers great benefits.

Cisco has been a champion of IP-based networks for years and is almost the de facto standard for enterprise networks. At its recent ‘Cisco Live’ event in London, Cisco presented its latest ideas for connected industries. These included robust factory equipment that is designed to network right into the plant floor.

This is interesting because it potentially supports the industry networks introduced above.

Cisco’s improved offer not only includes ruggedised equipment, capable of surviving in a factory environment, but also ruggedised wireless equipment.

This means that workstations do not have to rely on physical cables, which can be expensive to install in a factory environment.  Cisco also has a partnership with Rockwell, including equipment built into machine controllers.

Cisco presented some interesting scenarios. A simple but compelling example of network resilience was the demonstration of a voice-over-IP (VOIP) telephone call being unharmed when a network link carrying the call was broken. The network found another route with no interruption, not even a ‘click’, for the voice call.

Another critical issue for manufacturers is, of course, security.

An interesting question is if and how Cisco’s enterprise experiences add value in delivering the security required in production operations. Cisco and Rockwell have together developed an ‘Ethernet-to-the-Factory’ architecture that they call the ‘Converged Plant wide Ethernet architecture’. One part of this shows in the network design used for the Emirates Aluminium Company’s (EMAL) smelting plant at Taweelah, Abu Dhabi.

A configuration known as a ‘demilitarised zone’ (DMZ), well established for enterprise networks, provides one layer of the network security plan.  EMAL’s enterprise network is connected to its plant network through this DMZ. This architecture enables use of technologies such as Cisco’s Adaptive Security Appliance firewalls to implement multiple layers of security.

In the plant, EMAL’s implementation of the Cisco/Rockwell architecture includes redundant power supplies, dual ring networks, and ‘stacking’ technology to ensure a single switch problem cannot stop the network.

Of course Cisco is not the only vendor capable of delivering secure reliable networks for use in production environments.

The point is the importance of the whole extended communication network. For the industry network model to work, each participant needs confidence in the security of the network. They need to know that the pieces of information they want to expose to their partners – and only those pieces – can be seen accurately and seen now.

If industry network members lack the confidence in the security or reliability of the communications network, they will be less inclined to share. Cisco’s reputation for network security in the back office, particularly the finance department, helps to reassure network participants that confidentiality will not be breached.

In the future, communication network investment decisions will increasingly take account of these industry network questions.

In future blogs we will go on to write about other potential deployments that take advantage of industry networks.