In manufacturing, downtime is to be avoided—at all costs. In some industries, like life sciences, the failure to produce product for even 10 minutes can mean losing millions of dollars per batch. As a result, companies immediately look to IT applications, automation technologies, and operational processes to ensure there will be no glitch on the production line. That’s why we see manufacturers in every industry investing in asset management software, manufacturing execution systems, virus protection software, predictive analytics, quality control, backup plans, and people who have the right skill set to keep operations humming.
All of these things are needed—required, even. But the industry may be missing a critical component in the uptime puzzle. The network.
Ethernet has made its way onto the factory floor, displacing the proprietary networks of the past that were closed and somewhat protected. Today, Ethernet is faster than the Token Ring infrastructure manufacturers swore by in the 1980s and 90s. In fact, Ethernet / IP, the combination of traditional Ethernet TCP / IP and the Control and Information Protocol (CIP), is a highly reliable communication protocol for transferring data between devices. Ethernet/IP is not the problem. The real culprit of costly downtime may have more to do with the physical infrastructure that keeps the data flowing.
According to industry experts, the majority of network failures are result of a loss of network connectivity.
Protecting the wired and wireless connections between machines is just as important as protecting the data that flows over the communication infrastructure. Media, in its basic form, matters.
There are many ways a network connection could be disrupted or cut. Consider things such as mechanical, ingress, chemical and electromagnetic conditions (MICE)—that is, vibration, dust, water, electrical shorts, climate, or in some rare cases even critters. According to a Network World article, Google is now wrapping its underwater fiber cables in Kevlar-like material to protect the submerged wires from shark attacks. Here’s the video of a shark with a taste for cable:
While that is not a typical scenario for manufacturers, the shark footage serves as evidence that stuff happens. That means companies must design a network from the ground-up keeping mission critical production lines in mind as well as environmental factors. Resiliency must be built into everything – within the infrastructure design.
To that end, here are three factors to consider:
- Think about copper wire vs. fiber. For the enterprise LAN, copper or CAT 5e/6, is just fine. But when it comes to the factory floor, fiber cables can run longer distances and are immune to electrical interference.
- Think of the overall layout of the network being the physical topology. Consider if a central server will be attached directly to every workstation in a star configuration, for example, or perhaps everything should be connected to the main cable. Every last detail, down to the protective covering on the cable (do you need Kevlar?) is part of the planning.
- Consider how the wired and wireless architectures will interplay to create a cohesive data exchange experience.
Many companies have embraced a mobile / tablet strategy that effectively leverages the wired/wireless factory floor network. For example, here is a link to a video showing how Alstom Transport has embraced a manufacturing mobility strategy for each of its shop floor workers.
Bringing in an expert team to design and deploy the network is a valuable investment. Remember, the network will be around for decades, so you don’t want to have to rip and replace it anytime soon. Do it right the first time to avoid costly down time.
Stephanie can be found on Google+.