Evolving the “Connected Factory” from Concept to Reality

By Mike Granby, Red Lion Controls December 3, 2013 Automationworld.com


Right now, someone half a world away from a manufacturing plant is monitoring and controlling its devices, rather than standing a few feet away from them. That person may be sitting at a desk watching over a global network of facilities, or checking the latest production statistics from a smartphone. Automated factory networks are becoming more intelligent: self-configuring, self-regulating and even able to collect data to suggest efficiency improvements. This concept is known as the “Connected Factory” – and it is evolving from concept to reality at unprecedented speed.

There are more than 10 billion networked devices currently communicating over the Internet; that number is expected to increase to about 50 billion connected devices by 2050, according to the European Commission’s recent “Big Data” report. In Gartner’s recently issued top ten predictions for 2014, four of the top five emerging trends for the coming year directly impact the ongoing development and adoption rate of Connected Factory principles: mobile device diversity and management, mobile apps for business, the Internet of Everything and the widespread adoption of smart machines. What used to be a science-fiction “what-if” is materializing in real

applications and use cases: humans and devices are now working side-by-side on factory floors, with their productivity tracked on visual displays and sent to remote locations for analysis.

While many global manufacturers are eager to realize the benefits of the Connected Factory, such as reduced operational costs and better visibility and control of assets, it is unrealistic and cost-prohibitive for them to construct green-field facilities or orchestrate a “rip-and-replace” of all legacy equipment. Instead, plant managers are better off leveraging industrially fluent communications devices and adapting the legacy sensors, RTUs and communications protocols that have served them well for years in order to create modern, real-time reporting and control systems.

But bringing the factory into the 21st century involves more than just connecting IP-enabled devices to existing

Ethernet and wireless networks. The fundamentals of a successful Connected Factory must be prepared to ensure that facilities produce information that can be accessed, monitored and controlled from anywhere. To begin this process, manufacturers must do three things: 1) Enable devices to speak the same language; 2) Rethink operational efficiencies so more devices to talk to each other; and 3) Provide a secure, seamless platform in which these devices can communicate.

Breaking the Language Barrier – How to Speak the Same Language
The challenge with retrofitting legacy equipment into the Connected Factory is that it often uses older protocols or even serial links that don’t easily fit into the TCP/IP world. An organization’s engineers must first ensure that the devices can speak the same language.

Plant engineers often source network switches used to build industrial networks from the IT world, a decision that may make sense for higher-level infrastructure, but one that essentially introduces technology that is not purpose-built for machine-level control systems. For example, a modern machine may have every component networked and may allow every conceivable piece of status information to be displayed on its HMIs, but the network switch itself?the failure of which could take down the entire machine?sits alone or is loosely integrated via expensive and seemingly incomprehensible SMNP drivers.

To avoid this scenario, manufacturers must use a complex combination of drivers to provide protocol compatibility, replace existing hardware with more complex devices or choose advanced HMIs, protocol converters and industrial-grade switches that offer industrial fluency and multi-protocol support.

The first two options add complexity and development costs to the system. The third?deploying equipment with native support for all required standards and protocols?provides a simpler solution.

“Can You Hear Me Now?” — Get More Devices Talking
Connecting equipment that can’t easily be reached in remote or geographically rugged locations enables real-time information access and greatly enhances remote troubleshooting capabilities. It can also result in safer working conditions for the humans who must monitor, regulate and troubleshoot this equipment. Think about the value of automated devices in an oil and gas facility, for example. This clear value proposition for remote connectivity is driving the current boom in cellular M2M connection. Consider Metcalfe’s law as it applies to the Connected Factory: the value of the network increases exponentially with the number of connected assets.

With this in mind, manufacturers must invest in issuing all remote assets a cellular connection. Cellular routers and modems now provide native support for industrial automation equipment and protocols, including models that support 4G network connectivity. These products enable two-way communications from facility to facility, and enable information exchange with remote assets, such as offshore platforms or unattended substations or pipelines.

A Better Place to Talk
Another challenge facing manufacturers as they seek to assign an IP address to networked assets is that the available bandwidth remains static in spite of the ever-increasing volume of networkable devices and data points. When factoring in the hierarchical nature of the industrial world?with PLCs and HMIs grouped into machines, and these machines grouped into cells and cells grouped into factories?it may seem that assigning an IP address to every PLC and sensor is a management nightmare.

However, there are new approaches to network design and configuration that take full advantage of the available connectivity and control. Instead of assigning individual IP addresses, for example, engineers can solve the problem by using a rugged appliance that manages communications with dozens of disparate devices (including sensors, PLCs and HMIs) while serving as a single point of contact for the network.

Looking Ahead
The true value of the Connected Factory of the future isn’t derived from the sheer volume of connections; it comes from creating more meaningful connections, and the competitive edge gained by the harmonious dialogue between devices and the humans managing them. The ability to seamlessly communicate with operators, control systems and software applications, combined with practical networking options and support for native features and protocols, delivers exponential meaning to data extracted from industrial devices. These capabilities create the context to take automation and remote management to new levels, thereby making the connected factory a reality.

The Connected Factory demands a new approach to the concept of factory automation. With the thoughtful integration of supporting components that are designed specifically for this goal, the ability to connect, monitor and control will drive productivity well into the future.###

Mike Granby is President of Red Lion Controls. As the global experts in communication, monitoring and control for industrial automation and networking, Red Lion has been delivering innovative solutions for over forty years. Its award-winning technology enables companies worldwide to gain real-time data visibility that drives productivity. With headquarters in York, Pennsylvania, the company has offices across the Americas, Asia-Pacific and Europe. For more information, please visit www.redlion.net/together.