The industrial controls and automation industry is rapidly embracing Ethernet technology for control of network devices, leading to greater compatibility between the front-office networks and the shop floor.
According to the latest research from the ARC Advisory Group, industrial Ethernet technologies show a steady drift into lower levels of the industrial-automation hierarchy, displacing traditional non-Ethernet systems that were considered a major improvement over earlier point-to-point networks less than 10 years ago. And while year-on-year growth of non-Ethernet systems is in the double digits at the moment, it likely will falter considerably in the next decade as implementations narrow.
Ethernet, combined with PCI Express and USB technology, can dramatically improve performance and lower costs in areas such as industrial automation and testing, according to Robert Jackson and Alex McCarthy of National Instruments. The one nagging problem is the relatively high level of jitter in Ethernet transfers -- up to 10 ms -- that adds too much unpredictability for most industrial applications. Solutions such as the IEEE's Precision Time Protocol (PTP) offer a major improvement. More industries are adopting the Modbus TCP/IP protocol as well, improving communications between the human-machine interface (HMI) on the shop floor and the programmable logic controllers (PLCs) and programmable automation controllers (PACs) governing automation systems.
Even though Ethernet is reaching deeper into the industrial market, there still is every reason to believe that it will work comfortably with existing protocols, including the Fieldbus protocols like Profibus PA, HART and Fieldbus H1. According to measurement and automation company Endress + Hauser, Ethernet will need to accommodate a number of industry-specific processes, such as those required by field devices and specialty backbone equipment, that existing protocols address.
With increased Ethernet connectivity, however, come increased security concerns. Many industrial networks were not designed for robust security measures, since they were not generally accessible to the wider world. But the adoption of more open networks means malefactors (or business competitors) could wreak havoc on production environments. Fortunately, the enterprise has a long history in network security and many of the tools available to them can be easily translated to the industrial Ethernet.
Though security and other challenges exist, increased network interconnectivity can only be a good thing. The same efficiencies that arise from enhanced communication in the enterprise will benefit the factory, and shortening the distance between the two can only improve business practices as a whole.