Industrial networks: The IIoT's workhorses

Friday November 23, 2018
Written by Kristina Urquhart
November 23, 2018 – Because it’s relatively intangible, the concept of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) can be a difficult thing to wrap your head around. But it’s essentially a catch-all term for the network of physical devices embedded with sensors, actuators and other connectivity enablers that collect data to send to the cloud, where it can be accessed by end users in your plant.

The IIoT relies on many components to operate, but perhaps the most fundamental are the industrial networks that power it all – the underlying architecture of technologies (such as fieldbus or the industrial Ethernet) that allow all of these devices to talk to one another. According to the Industrial Internet Consortium (IIC), a global body that advocates for the adoption of the IIoT, every organization requires a different industrial network depending on its needs – and that involves a lot of decision-making. These range from basic decisions (i.e. whether to use a wireless or wired system), to the complex (i.e. which safety protocols to follow).

Navigating these variables can be challenging for manufacturers, and so the IIC recently released a white paper to familiarize the industry with use-case scenarios. The paper, titled “Industrial Networking Enabling IIoT Communciation,” is a precursor to the IIC’s forthcoming Industrial Internet Connectivity Framework, which will detail best practices for IIoT communication and evaluate the merits of currently available technologies.

According to the paper’s authors, despite frequent product turnover, the future of networking will need more design considerations to accommodate things like security, reliability and technology lifecycle management.

“In contrast, operational technology (OT) systems comprise systems with longer life cycles, on average 19 years,” the report says. “This difference in development speed leads to slow adoption of new network technologies into existing OT deployments. Manufacturing subsystems should therefore be decoupled from the network devices while keeping a consistent interface between them.”

It’s an interesting idea, but one that will likely take a long time to become reality. A plant that has made significant investments in the integrated technology solutions offered up to this point will be hard-pressed to justify the cost of modifications needed to separate their manufacturing systems from their industrial network architecture.

Yet the convergence of information technology (IT) and OT may make it a more urgent priority. 5G connectivity – the latest evolution of wireless technology – is being rolled out over the next few years to replace 4G/LTE networks. 5G will enable faster connections and lower latency rates to allow for operational information to be delivered in real-time.

The industrial networks that govern the IIoT boast other benefits, too. Advanced network architectures are what enable things like the digital thread, which has become an
important view into a product’s lifecycle. We highlight how the digital thread can help manufacturers earn new revenue in our Nov/Dec 2018 issue.

Ultimately, that’s what this entire IIoT concept is about – maximizing profitability and productivity. And who doesn’t want that?

This editorial originally appeared in the November/December 2018 issue of 
Manufacturing AUTOMATION. View the digital edition here.

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