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Converged Networking Drives Automotive Operational Efficiencies

Paul Brooks
By Paul Brooks Business Development Manager, Rockwell Automation

Automatic parallel parking, lane-keeping assistance, sensor-enabled maintenance, infotainment equipment and other advanced electronics are helping many automotive manufacturers differentiate their vehicles in a fiercely competitive, global marketplace. While this digitization is becoming more pervasive inside the vehicle, it is also becoming more commonplace inside automotive manufacturing facilities.

The rationale is simple. Connected devices and IoT technologies can provide better information flow between the factory floor and business systems for better visibility and efficiency across operations. This, in turn, enables manufacturers to meet shifting consumer demands, new regulatory requirements and innovation goals—without negatively impacting either existing productivity or the bottom line.

A Gartner study estimates that 50 billion devices and objects will be connected to the network by 2020—with the industrial automation sector accounting for three-quarters of these connected devices. While the number of connected devices continues to grow, we’re seeing an overall convergence in the number of networks. Not too long ago, manufacturers often used numerous networks within the factory—one for real-time communication, one for motion control, one for safety control, and more.

Today, however, Ethernet and the Internet Protocol (IP) has developed to a point where it can enable applications like equipment configuration, alarming, and process data collection, making it a viable infrastructure to handle all data movement in the plant. In addition, manufacturers who use EtherNet/IP networks can take advantage of the many innovative technologies that were developed for the commercial world, but are quickly migrating to the plant floor. These and other open-standard, IP-enabled devices are helping manufacturing and process operations reach new heights of production efficiency.

Operating business side and plant floor operations on one scalable, high-performance network makes sense not only from a cost-savings standpoint. The convergence also enables greater security, safety and agility with real-time visibility into production operations, inventory and schedules.

The Converged Road

Operating on a converged network has a number of requirements. For example, if you simply want to get information from the production line, business system and internet, you need to have pervasive wireless in your facility. If you want access to video, enterprise information and automation data, then you need to adopt standard Ethernet and IP.

Converging onto a single network requires leveraging technology and manufacturing standards common between IT and manufacturing. Reference architectures, such as those included in the Converged Plantwide Ethernet Design and Implementation Guide, offer recommendations, best practices, methodology and documented configuration settings to help establish a secure network architecture.

Driving Innovation

Daimler Trucks North America (DTNA) wanted to increase productivity and improve visibility when it decided to update its network. The company needed a converged network architecture to support flexible and efficient operations—especially as it more frequently customizes vehicles to meet each customer’s unique specifications.

Converging IT and manufacturing networks with the help of Cisco and Rockwell Automation has helped managers make better, faster decisions that keep operations efficient and productive. Secure and seamless Wi-Fi connectivity across the plant was critical since team leaders and supervisors needed to communicate reliably over wireless phones to manage production on the floor.

After installing the new network, Daimler is now able to use wireless devices, such as iPads, to confirm the truck configurations, check part supply levels, retrieve parts from the warehouse, and confirm truck status in real time. The company is also using network convergence as the foundation for asset tracking, which requires pulling data from different corners of the business.

Converged Networks, Converged Job Roles

Historically, personnel responsible for operations technology (OT) maintained networks and devices in industrial environments, focusing on operation productivity, while information technology (IT) professionals managed the business side, and were only consulted on the handful of devices operating on Ethernet. Building and maintaining these separate networks required completely different roles and skills sets.

However, as standard Ethernet and IP technologies enter industrial operations, there is no longer a clear line of demarcation to dictate roles.

To support this network convergence, IT and OT professionals must collaborate and share responsibilities for improved connectivity and information sharing. Oftentimes, employees must learn new skills to be able to work together to manage, administer and troubleshoot industrial network systems.

New Training Opportunities

As advanced networking and information technologies continue to evolve, IT and OT are turning to new training opportunities to help them better understand what network convergence means and how it will affect their jobs roles. One of these new opportunities is the network design training courses from Industrial IP Advantage.

The training teaches basic networking technologies and best practices for implementing validated reference architectures to help deploy secure and converged plant-wide network architectures, and identify critical differences between IT and OT network deployments.

Both professions must learn the intricacies of connecting control systems to network systems and how to maintain them. These best practices will maximize plant uptime and security for critical systems and assets.

While the IoT continues to move deeper into industrial operations, all roads lead to network convergence, with IT and OT collaboration being a key driver.

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