Manufacturing is a global business. Their supply chains, production facilities and distribution channels are often global. Many manufacturers make decisions to locate production facilities based upon a global perspective on labor costs, resource costs (raw materials, energy, etc.), logistic costs, regulations, import/export tax codes and perceptions of customers. The industry is further expanding across geographical regions as we witness the consolidation of many of the sub-verticals into large, global conglomerates in recent years: CPG, Food & Beverages, Automotive, Steel, Pharmaceuticals. Not only are these enterprises running production operations with global footprints, they are also working with employees across different countries, cultures and languages. That does not suggest though that they have replicated the knowledge and expertise of the production control organizations. In fact, through the ups and downs of the industry and aging workforces, many have shrunk their production control teams. How then would a manufacturer maintain or improve operational efficiency and grow during the up turns with new production facilities?
The main answer lies in productivity improvements driven by open technologies. For example, production teams based in the US or Europe can now oversee new factory build outs in Asia-Pacific, India or China from their desks. Or they ask their key factory component providers (machine builders) to take on key responsibilities during deployment and operations. For example, many wind farms built today are deployed and operated for years by the wind turbine manufacturers. They can do this without constant travel due to the open, standard networks being built into plants and the machines in them allowing them rich communication and status information from the wind farms. Remote Access is not just about accessing data from afar. Field or production personnel can bring experts into the operational environment via wireless cameras, phones and collaboration devices to help resolve issues or improve the process. The remote accessibility offered by a standard network allows rich, collaborative communication between far-away experts and the people and assets in the production facilities. This leads to reduced downtime, improved productivity in personnel and lower travel and maintenance costs, leading to significant improvements in Operational Efficiency.
Effective communications and connectivity is key for these organizations to succeed and meet business goals. That communication and connectivity not only includes the personnel, wherever they may be, but the devices and machines that make up the production capability. The industry has grown up using a wide range of proprietary, legacy protocols. These protocols have been optimized for different uses, usually focusing on reliability, specific performance criteria or simply to lock-in customers to a vendor's technology. In addition, due to their obscurity and unconnected nature, the systems using proprietary industrial protocols were viewed as secure. These arguments no longer hold water and these technologies do not meet the communication and connectivity needs demanded by the new global operating models.
For example, General Motors has converged their Plant Networks. They can deliver rich video and audio anywhere in the Plant: for corporate communications, training, even critical information in emergencies. On the same network infrastructure that carries automation and control application traffic between machines and to remote production control engineers managing the plant operations. And, by deploying this in a standard approach, they have significantly REDUCED network outages and downtime. EMAL, an aluminum smelting venture in the UAE is using a combination of standard wired and wireless technologies to connect all plant devices (mobile and fixed), personnel (handheld and PCs) and vehicles. Plant personnel are constantly connected to plant and enterprise applications (email, voice, ERP, etc.), moving and fixed automation and control devices are inter-connected, running control protocols (supported by QoS -- Quality of Service for the protocols) over wireless infrastructure that also enables personnel mobility. By deploying a single, inter-connected network, they manage one network with higher performance and availability than multiple networks can provide.
The shift to standard networks for industrial applications is well underway. It is occurring because standard networks are now as or more reliable, perform better, support more applications and incorporate an active security model. On top of doing the basic automation and control, standard networks offer significant value thru accessibility, reliability, innovation and rich collaborative capabilities. And, with an active defense-in-depth security approach, standard networks are becoming very secure. The stuxnet virus showed that even unconnected automation and control systems can be breached and attacked. No security approach will be totally fool-proof, but active security and defense-in-depth, with the on-going development in standard networks will develop to stay more secure than any security-by-obscurity approach.
Standard networks though are not simply replacing the job of proprietary networks. In some cases, the advancement and innovation in standard networks are enabling new capabilities in production environment. Take, for example, standard wireless sensors. With their meshing, low-powered, wide-ranging capabilities, production engineers can significantly improve their ability to sense (temperature, pressure, vibration, etc.) processes in harsher, harder to reach places. All at a significantly lower implementation and maintenance costs than previously available technologies. The ability to deploy 5 to 10 times the sensors at the same or lower costs enables them to more efficiently operate their processes: higher yields, lower costs and less waste.
The business drivers for standard industrial networks are varied, including accessibility by remote engineers or vendors, collaborating with field personnel, improving field/plant personnel productivity or simply accessing sensors and devices in harsh, hard to reach spaces. The value standard industrial networks bring are clear: increased operational efficiency, reduced downtime and lower costs. Standard networks are creating a wave of optimization and improvement in production operations. Standard network have shown they can support the performance and reliability required by automation and control applications. And, with the improved security and wider range of applications supported, the march into production environments is inevitable. As manufacturing continues to become more and more a global process and business, standard networks will rise to supply the communication and connectivity required to maintain and improve the operational efficiency for manufacturers to stay competitive.
Paul Didier is an Industry Solutions Architect for Manufacturing for Cisco Systems. He is responsible for developing solutions for the Manufacturing vertical including those for Automation and Control systems. Paul was an author of the Converged Plantwide Ethernet DIG published jointly by Cisco and Rockwell Automation. Paul is a member of the ODVA's Technical Review Board and has over 20 years of industry experience.
Prior to joining Cisco, Paul was an IT Infrastructure expert at Accenture for 16 years and an IT Manager for SAP for 2 years. He has extensive experience working for Manufacturing, Retail and Financial Services clients. He has developed and deployed large enterprise IT applications on a global scale.