Plant-to-Enterprise Network Convergence Design Strategies

George Kairys, Molex



George Kairys, Molex

Industrial network convergence between plant and enterprise systems necessitates the integration of cabling, connectivity, controllers, switches and other components, coupled with the software interface to transmit and mine data between commercial and industrial functions.  Lately we’ve seen a trend towards extending Ethernet to the plant as the link-layer protocol to one or more of the legacy protocol applications, and even extending Ethernet down to the device level on the machines. Technology advancements have set the stage for convergence, offering network tools to effectively link machine processes, control systems and plant-wide information to the enterprise. 

Convergence Strategies

Unlike proprietary protocols commonly used in years past, industrial Ethernet is built on a standard Ethernet structure and Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP) standards, which allow computers to share resources across a single local area network. TCP/IP also facilitates rapid and accurate file transfer and user communications on both the commercial and industrial sides.

At the plant level, Industrial process control and automation typically require more stringent real-time data transmission rates. Ethernet not only improves transmission speed, it can span distances and accept more devices without performance degradation often seen in prior network technology.   Examples of industrial Ethernet platforms include PROFINET, Profibus and EtherNet/IP.

Industrial Ethernet uses twisted pair cable, fiber optics, wireless networks, and may also include Power-over-Ethernet (PoE) where power passes along with the data.  In addition to physical layer components, system designers also need to carefully consider network architecture, as well as interoperability, security, and data management, to enable convergence to work efficiently today and allow for future expansion. 

The right network architecture can effectively link business management to plant floor controllers such as PLCs, PACs and PCs, which control operation and collect data from machines and devices.  However, ubiquitous data transparency can be both empowering and overwhelming, depending on how it is used.

Real-time raw data from the plant typically doesn’t reach management level, nor does it need to.  Translating raw production data into usable intelligence for management is likely the most challenging hurdle for companies seeking to converge on Ethernet―and here, too, technology is the enabler.   To manage plant floor data effectively, various types of executive dashboards and other business intelligence and analysis software can help to filter data and focus on key metrics and performance indicators and other information needed for high-level decision-making.

Benefits of Convergence

The benefits of plant and enterprise convergence depend largely on the network configuration and the strategies driving a company’s decision to integrate these two sectors.  Significant business and operational advantages include improved efficiency and resource management, faster data transmission, enterprise-wide increased business intelligence, improved equipment monitoring and control, and the ability to meet secure real-time data traffic requirements.