How to Build Better Networkable Devices

Industrial automation devices configured for time-sensitive networking may benefit from a single communications backbone for managing all Ethernet traffic.

Daphne Allen

April 5, 2024

5 Min Read
Thomas Burke Global Strategic Advisor for CC-Link Partner Association

At a Glance

  • Time-sensitive networking (TSN) was established with the Ethernet Enhancements of 2016
  • Use of Ethernet TSN switches will enable general-purpose communications for informational or supervisory reasons
  • Design of equipment with new Ethernet TSN architectures could support analytics for improved performance

Design engineers developing connectable industrial devices are challenged by the need to support many industrial networks that are available in the market, explains Tom Burke, global strategic advisor, CC Link Partner Association. CLPA is a high-speed, high-performance industrial network that supports the IIoT and IT/OT convergence. 

However, “while device vendors may be experts in their domain—vision systems, LiDAR, measurements, etc.—they can’t be experts in every protocol that automation equipment supports,” Burke tells Design News. A communications partner company can lend a hand by providing canned solutions for protocol support, such as CC-Link IE TSN, a performance solution for motion control, he explained.

Design News asked Burke several questions about developing such industrial devices. He has spent the majority of his career developing hardware, software, and firmware for industrial automation, spending a great part of his career at Rockwell Automation. He also previously served as OPC Foundation president & executive director and pioneered the OPC Unified Architecture (OPC UA) as the foundation of information integration and interoperability. 

What are some challenges specifically involving intercompatibility? 

Burke: When discussing protocols, we’ve typically been limited to the selection of one protocol for use in an application. Now that Ethernet has become the backbone for most protocols, that requirement has lessened, and protocols can co-exist. However, there is still a class of application—motion control—that has determinism requirements that typically preclude co-existence with other protocols. The ability to have all Ethernet protocols co-exist and have the ability to guarantee determinism was the purpose for an Ethernet standard improvement created back in 2016. That improvement delivered features for scheduling, pre-emption, and traffic shaping to the Ethernet Specification and that enabled the combination of high-priority traffic, combined with other general-purpose traffic on the same network.

Related:Time-Sensitive Networking Innovation Transforms Industrial Connectivity

Can you explain time-sensitive networking and how it applies to advanced manufacturing environments?

Burke: Time-sensitive networking (TSN) is the name given to the Ethernet Enhancements of 2016. With this new Ethernet specification, industrial automation protocols were able to adopt the enhanced functionality and make use of the features to deliver both high performance and deterministic communications capability. Devices on a TSN-enhanced network make use of clock synchronization. They know when to send a message, and their message can be set to a higher priority than other traffic. Features also exist to shape traffic, reducing large packets by breaking them up to make sure high-priority traffic can be interspersed for delivery. New Ethernet switches are available to segment and manage TSN traffic.

Related:Harnessing the Power of Deterministic Networks for Motion Control

How can manufacturing engineers implement time-sensitive networking?

Burke: The benefit to an end user is that TSN products enable simplified machine architectures, allowing a single communications backbone in the machine that can combine and manage all Ethernet traffic. In the past, deterministic traffic typically needed an isolated pathway for communications. But configuration remains simple, as the end user is simply selecting and integrating products already capable of TSN communications. It’s a simple configuration task, not a development task.

For device manufacturers however, the challenge is greater, as Ethernet TSN features typically require new silicon hardware for support and that will trigger a hardware revision and not just a firmware update. Leveraging a third-party for communications support can greatly ease the burden of development and certification.

Would equipment makers (such as those making robotic systems, manufacturing systems, or other industrial machinery) be involved in engineering their equipment for network compatibility or integrating solutions to support such networking?

Burke: Equipment vendors that have deterministic communication requirements should definitely consider the adoption of Ethernet with TSN, to enable a competitive advantage over those that have not. Mitsubishi Electric is currently the leading vendor with Ethernet TSN support—and equipment and device vendors should consider not only Ethernet TSN, but also the leading protocol that leverages it—CC-Link IE TSN. Supporting this protocol will enable integration into the Mitsubishi Electric ecosystem of customers and OEMs and will enable new and competitive architectures based on a single communications backbone.

How would such networking solutions support the use of Internet of Industrial Things (IIoT) and edge processing?

Burke: Ethernet with TSN is intended for “Islands of Automation,” such as use in a machine or along a production line. The use of Ethernet TSN switches will enable general purpose communications beyond the island for informational or supervisory communications. And these communications can certainly be IIoT related.

Will such networking solutions help manufacturers better handle the increasing amounts of data generated and gathered in an Industry 4.0 environment?

Burke: The ability to support all communications traffic on a single Ethernet backbone means that all devices are accessible over Ethernet. Devices involved in deterministic communications can also support standard informational communications for use outside of control. For example, CC-Link IE TSN-based devices also offer support for SNMP communications. Hence, the design of equipment with new Ethernet TSN architectures will naturally lead to solutions with more data and thus will support analytics for improved performance, quality, or troubleshooting. You’ll be better able to support the ideas of Industry 4.0, smart manufacturing, and digital transformation.

Will AI play a role in such communications or need to be managed through such networks?

Burke: Communication networks like Ethernet or Ethernet with TSN will enable greater access to data. More data, combined with analytics will lead greater insights, and our new access to AI engines will only accelerate that trend.

Any other points you’d like to make about time-sensitive networking?

Burke: The initial Ethernet Specification release was in 2016. Mitsubishi Electric has been delivering products with CC-Link IE TSN support (designed to leverage the Ethernet TSN capabilities) since 2018. Today, we have a wide range of products to select from, both from Mitsubishi Electric and third parties. Companies that want to have an equipment technical advantage, especially in the areas of motion control, can achieve that with Mitsubishi Electric as a partner, today.

About the Author(s)

Daphne Allen

Daphne Allen is editor-in-chief of Design News. She previously served as editor-in-chief of MD+DI and of Pharmaceutical & Medical Packaging News and also served as an editor for Packaging Digest. Daphne has covered design, manufacturing, materials, packaging, labeling, and regulatory issues for more than 20 years. She has also presented on these topics in several webinars and conferences, most recently discussing design and engineering trends at IME West 2024 and leading an Industry ShopTalk discussion during the show on artificial intelligence.

Follow Daphne on X at @daphneallen and reach her at [email protected].

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