Now that the industrial controls industry has gotten the Ethernet bug, the rush is on to devise a range of systems designed to integrate that shop floor with the office LAN.
Industrial automation systems have been pushing the limits of traditional fieldbus technology for some time. Ethernet provides the means to improve control networks for large manufacturing systems and to exchange production and manufacturing information with centralized business intelligence systems in the enterprise.
But to do that most effectively, industrial systems need to embrace more than simple Ethernet protocols and delve further into extension technologies and higher-level communications mechanisms, such as PCIe.
ABB seems to have recognized this need and has updated its line of industrial networking solutions to meet it. The new IndustrialIT Enterprise Connectivity Solution (ECS) offers a single-point interface for connecting industrial systems, like ABB's IndustrialIT 800xA, with SAP, Oracle and Microsoft enterprise tools, such as databases, OPC-compliant systems and Web services. The new version offers greater online redundancy and an improved GUI.
A Maryland firm called Patton has developed an Ethernet extender system that utilizes twisted copper infrastructures to tie industrial equipment to business machines. The 2172R extender is a 50 Mbps device that can send Ethernet signals up to 3,000 feet over TTL, RS-232 or RS422/485 serial circuits, bridging the office/floor divide without having to run specialized fiber or CAT 5 lines. The device provides six user-selectable symmetrical and asymmetrical line rates and features a rugged casing suitable for -10 to +70 degrees C.
In Europe, work is progressing on defining a new CompactPCI format that will allow industrial backplane systems to better communicate with serial busses like PCI Express, Ethernet, SATA/SAS and USB. The PCI Industrial Computer Manufacturers Group (PICMG) aims to define a new peripheral slot that supports these common enterprise standards at a minimum data rate of 10 Gbps. The group stops short of defining an interface for full switched fabrics.
One of the main stumbling blocks for Ethernet-based control systems is that Ethernet is a much more complicated environment than traditional industrial fieldbus technology. But a firm called Pilz Automation Technology is working on that problem through its SafetyNETp protocol. The company claims it provides all the advantages of Ethernet while maintaining the ease of installation of a standard fieldbus. It supports both the RTFL format for fast communications in changing environments and the RTFN format for communication over any Ethernet network.
Increased network integration can only be an unqualified good. Whether it's the server farm, the storage array or the shop floor, the more systems and software can communicate directly, the more efficiency and productivity will be enhanced.