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The Plant Of The Future: Seven Key Elements

Manufacturers are converging their OT and IT systems into a unified network architecture.

For decades, manufacturing operations technology (OT) and enterprise information technology (IT) systems developed and evolved into separate physical architectures that remained largely walled off from each other in the industrial and business spaces.

But in the Internet of Things era, in which an endless number of connected “things” communicate on the same network, the segregation of IT and OT networks can be a handicap.                                                                                                         

As a result, manufacturers are converging their OT and IT systems into a unified network architecture, giving them nearly unlimited access to valuable production data that can help them make improvements and more swiftly react to market changes. On top of this, manufacturers also have access to new technologies, such as mobility, virtualization and cloud computing, that enable them to deploy their people, machines and infrastructure in ways that are more efficient and cost effective.

Given the vast opportunity that manufacturers are being presented with, nobody can say with certainty what the plant of the future will look like. Odds are there won’t be a single archetype but rather many variations. Still, if we could peer into a crystal ball, we would probably see common characteristics across the plants of tomorrow.

Automation Network Infrastructure

Whether producing packaged meals, steel or automobiles, the plant of the future will be information driven, and that begins with a strong foundation in the form of a single common network infrastructure.

Today’s proprietary and closed systems that dominate plants present a major challenge to sending data to the right place, at the right time and in the right context.

A common network infrastructure built on standard unmodified Ethernet and Internet Protocol (IP), such as EtherNet/IP, enables the seamless flow of data either within a plant or across an organization’s global enterprise. It also offers new opportunities for increasing productivity, improving time to market and minimizing reconfiguration when conducting changeovers.

For assistance in designing and implementing a common network infrastructure, the Converged Plantwide Ethernet (CPwE) Design and Implementation Guide from Cisco and Rockwell Automation provides validated networking architecture design principles, and the Panduit Industrial Ethernet Physical Infrastructure Reference Architecture Design Guide provides key considerations for the physical layer.

Security And Compliance

Before plants can unleash the true potential of IT/OT convergence in their operations, they must first protect and secure it. This includes protecting their intellectual property and physical infrastructure against unwanted access, as well as putting in strong oversight to manage network activity and potential application modifications.

A commitment to security and compliance will help minimize risk and unnecessary downtime and allow organizations to confidently get more out of their operations.


How will plants accomplish this? Defense-in-depth security, which uses multiple layers of defense to protect information and assets, has emerged as the best-practice approach. A systems-oriented approach can leverage control systems, network hardware and software to, for example, limit communication between only defined entities or restrict users’ ability to access specific pieces of control system content.

Other important measures will include implementing security enabled hardware and policies that span across applications, networks and systems and deploying physical security safeguards such as access control and cabling lock-ins and block-outs.


Mobile devices have the potential to permeate every aspect of the manufacturing world of tomorrow just as they are improving our personal lives today.

Early adopters of mobile technology in the industrial space are showing just how valuable it is by achieving up to 80 percent improvements in decision-making times. More than that, mobile technology can be applied to equipment, such as for reconfiguring manufacturing processes to accommodate flexible operations and for wireless tooling.

Successful mobile deployment will be dependent on good wireless design practices and wireless products, as well as architecture implementations that help manage radio frequency interference.


Get ready to think of video in an entirely new way in the plant of the future as more and more plants make the transition from analog video to IP-based video that resides on their converged networks.

For starters, IP video is improving how video can be used for security. More than funneling several streams of video for continuous human monitoring, IP video can be integrated with analytic software that can detect suspicious or unwanted activities and then notify security personnel. Higher-definition capabilities of IP video can also be used with facial-recognition software to manage personnel access.

But IP video offers more than security. It can help monitor the efficiency of a plant’s people, equipment and production processes. Additionally, using mobile devices to video chat with remote service technicians from the plant floor can improve collaboration and more quickly resolve downtime events.

Industrial Compute And The Cloud

Among the many benefits a converged network infrastructure offers is the ability to deploy industrial compute resources at several levels — from edge computing on the plant floor, where the data is collected, all the way up to the cloud.

This allows you to deploy processing power in ways that can lower your deployment and maintenance costs and improve your ability to collect and manage data from the production environment. It can also give you greater flexibility to add new intelligence and applications with minimal costs or disruptions.

For example, the advent of “fog computing” is allowing manufacturers to run software applications on networked devices, such as routers, switches and IP video cameras. Bringing applications closer to where data is generated provides another platform for computing that can make data easier to collect and process.

Remote Access

Whether it’s a manufacturer with plants located around the world or an oil producer with rigs distributed across hundreds of miles, organizations have long struggled with having technical experts available on-site when needed and with empowering those experts to make the best decisions possible based on good data.

The truth is, many maintenance events don’t require an expert on-site, and many maintenance activities are carried out using incomplete plant-floor data due to shortfalls in data availability.

Only a fraction of networks today currently have the capability to afford significant remote access traffic. The Internet of Things is changing that. Companies seeking this future state need to assess and plan to migrate their current network to this state so they can remotely monitor assets and proactively address issues before they become downtime events. Using wired and wireless technologies, remote experts working from a centralized location can securely monitor and analyze key metrics such as temperatures, flow rates and faults for plants around the world.

Should the remote experts notice an anomaly, they can immediately alert plant personnel of the issue and work together to diagnose and correct it. This has the opportunity to minimize the frequency and duration of downtime events and reduce unnecessary travel costs.

Energy Management

Energy is often merely treated as another cost of doing business, with most efforts to track it involving little more than month-to-month cost comparisons or replacing the least energy-efficient machinery.

But the plants of tomorrow will view energy as a manageable cost, with insights that drill down to more granular levels for better energy-related decision making.

They will use the power of their converged network to tap into energy-meter data or even turn assets into “smart” power meters themselves so they have a good profile of their energy consuming processes compared to their real time business needs. They will also use new technologies that can help them more intelligently manage energy through better control of their smart equipment, such as powering off unused equipment or switching equipment into lower power states when possible, to save energy and reduce costs.

The Future Is Now

It might be some time before most plants embrace these concepts, but the technologies needed to make them happen are all available today. Forward-thinking manufacturers and industrial operators are already embracing and adopting them. The question to ask yourself is: Just how close is the future? And how ready are you?

About the Authors: Todd Edmunds, Sr. is the Solution Architect for Manufacturing at Cisco. Bob Voss is the Senior Principal Research Engineer at Panduit Laboratories. Cliff Whitehead is the Manager of Technology Business Development at Rockwell Automation. This article was written on behalf of Industrial IP Advantage.

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