How Ethernet Is Expanding Its Role

The move to industrial Ethernet for factory networking has been an evolutionary change. In the past 10 years, motion and I/O networks have embraced new approaches, and companies have leveraged the technology to improve machine control networks, data collection, connections to business systems, and remote monitoring and maintenance. But now it looks like we're in the midst of an additional wave of development that is targeting stronger, even more unified networking solutions.

"What we have seen in factory networking is a rapid move from a wide range of fieldbus and proprietary networks to solutions based on industrial Ethernet that has really been a surprise," Brian Oulton, director of global vertical marketing at Belden, told us. "If you look at the analyst's reports, in the years since 2001, when Ethernet was introduced to do I/O and drive control, growth and adoption rates have been very high with compound annual growth in the 30 percent range."

One factor that Oulton says has been driving growth is the incredibly forgiving nature of Ethernet network implementations. With other fieldbus technology, reaching 10 to 20 nodes on the network often requires rethinking the system architecture, adding communication modules, and sometimes even configuring a second network and figuring out how to communicate between the two networks. But with Ethernet, companies just kept adding hardware and expanding their networks.

In the beginning, the technology was easy to work with, because it provided a big, wide pipe and could handle the complexities of moving to larger, more sophisticated network architectures, he said. Instead of viewing Ethernet as a fieldbus substitute, many companies started creating these larger networks. Where a Profibus DP or ControlNet network might include 30-40 nodes, and DeviceNet networks might reach 10-15, large users expanded their industrial Ethernet network to 1,000 nodes and beyond.

With industrial networks continuing to develop and companies implementing networks in different ways, Belden has tried to understand the role of mission-critical communications for manufacturing. It has identified four themes that it says are driving this expansion.

The first key benefit that companies are seeing is the efficiencies of moving to one network technology and having fewer networks. In the past, an application would extract information from a specific machine and, with a lot of work, push it into the accounting system. Now having one network is dramatically reducing the amount of work. Companies are using these efficiencies to move data in volumes that would have been prohibitive in the past.

A second trend has been demand for more agility to make quicker business decisions based on plant floor information. Companies that have cobbled together a plant network are building more robust industrial Ethernet infrastructures that improve reliability and efficiency. More agility allows you not only to access data but also to make dramatic changes in the manufacturing process. Even though a single network is handling an extremely high number of nodes, the solid communications infrastructure is letting companies move machines and make larger production changes. Agility provides the ability to access information and collaborate more across the enterprise, from the supply chain

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