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Are industrial Ethernet networks ready for Industrie 4.0?

Industrie 4.0’s potential places a lot of demands on manufacturers looking to make data-driven decisions, and industrial Ethernet networks need to handle the increasing speed and volume.


Network performance comparison of CC-Link IE Field versus conventional industrial Ethernet technologies. Courtesy: CC-Link Partner Association (CLPA)

One of the overriding aspects of industrial networking (clearer when viewed over the last three decades) is the quicker speed at which technology updates propagate through the marketplace. Standards play a part, sometimes following or leading changes.

With industrial Ethernet having overtaken fieldbus technologies in the number of new nodes being installed, and influences such as Industrie 4.0 having a profound impact on development, how well is industrial Ethernet suited to the future demands of industrial network communication?

The classic model for technology lifecycle is innovation, early adoption, proliferation, consolidation, standardization, then replacement. But that progression may be less relevant given the sweeping changes from outside influences that are disrupting the usual sequence of events.

Industrie 4.0 is driving change from a conceptual standpoint. The resulting practical challenges, such as cross-platform integration, Big Data, and the burgeoning proliferation of artificial intelligence (AI) are all significant external forces affecting network technology development.

The proliferation of Ethernet in industrial control network applications has been swift compared to the adoption and consolidation of fieldbus, which is still in progress. There is no doubt that the open nature of Ethernet as a technology also is fueling already furious development schedules. Logic dictates swift consolidation and standardization should follow.

The speed of change means that as businesses embark on the journey to Industrie 4.0, they need to consider how to build industrial communications infrastructure to remain competitive and thrive.

While industrial Ethernet networks can provide a future-proof system, their performance can determine the success or failure of an enterprise.

Industrie 4.0 and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) demand seamless interconnection from the smallest sensor up to enterprise-level systems. The future depicted by these concepts will be built on lots of data. All this data can provide actionable insights into the manufacturing processes.

Automation networking landscape

Manufacturing companies looking to succeed need to make the best use of this data without having its volume cripple the very communications systems being used to transmit it.

We may not know exactly what these future communications infrastructures will look like, but we can already see some clues in cloud computing. We will soon see the likes of virtual programmable logic controllers (PLCs) and virtual supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) in the cloud, collecting data from and sending it to plant floor devices in real time.

Industrial Ethernet networks are likely to be a mainstay in industrial communications, helping to control industry, infrastructure and utilities by connecting different devices, machines, systems and users, regardless of location.

Industrial Ethernet networks differ. The transfer of data can vary among the various Ethernet protocols. Performance influences the ability to handle current and future data sharing needs.

In the future, we will need more of whatever network and system performance that is deemed adequate for today’s requirements. If companies don’t, they’re going to fall behind because they cannot successfully embrace Industrie 4.0 or gain useful insight into manufacturing processes.

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