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The rise of Ethernet

29 July 2015

In 2013, Ethernet technology celebrated its 40th birthday. Over this period, collaboration innovation in all sectors of the world – academia, business, government and consortia – have led to ubiquitous adoption of the technology.  Katherine Voss, president and executive director at ODVA, offers her views on technology developments.

Although the usefulness of Ethernet technology in industrial automation was initially questioned, in the last decade, industrial Ethernet has proven itself in industrial automation where it now is overtaking many other industrial communication technologies.  

Today the world is entering a new era of cyber-physical systems, and industrial automation is leading the way. This era will likely transform the world in ways equally as significant to the globalisation of business that commenced with full steam at the start of the 21st century. Industrial Ethernet technology is at the center of this transformation.  

Informed users will be well aware of the major industry trends that are influencing this transformation - such as the industrial Internet of Things, Industry 4.0 and Big Data. What may be more difficult to discern is exactly what actions users should undertake to ensure that their businesses and their business models remain successful during this transformation. There are a few key lessons learned from that rapid rise of industrial Ethernet that can help guide users as they make decisions regarding their information and communication technologies for the future and, in particular, the continuously greater role that Ethernet will play in automation.

Integration strategy
An integration strategy is essential. Heterogeneous systems and networks characterise the industrial ecosystem. Even though adoption of industrial Ethernet grows every day, there is no ‘one size fits all’ for industrial communication networks. In certain applications, both legacy and greenfield, non-Ethernet networks will continue to be used for reasons such as cost and/or environmental concerns. Industrial Ethernet, using standard Ethernet and Internet technologies, should be the backbone of any network architecture requiring integration of heterogeneous networks.

Interoperability is essential. Interoperability of heterogeneous systems and networks requires the movement of data between them. Industrial Ethernet, using standard Ethernet and Internet technologies, provides the bridging and routing capability needs to move this data between systems.

Look to Commercial-off-the-Shelf (COTS) technologies as these can optimise the performance-cost ratio. One of the early deterrents to the adoption of industrial Ethernet was connectivity cost per node. This equation continues to shift in favour of Ethernet versus other industrial communication technologies because silicon used in high volume applications such as ARM processors make their way into more and more industrial protocols. Demands for greatly enhanced cyber security for industrial applications will accelerate the need to use high performance processors in increasingly more industrial devices. Users will want to carefully consider the computing power of devices to help ensure return on investment.

Blended standard protocols
A blended set of standard protocols and services are needed. Delivering goods to the customer ‘faster, better and cheaper’ will remain the central goal of every production facility, and protocols used by industrial Ethernet variants and other non-Ethernet networks have proven their capabilities to help realise this goal. However, in the next era, successful businesses will enhance their business models for production with data-centric services for everything from cyber security to energy management and business analytics. Users will want to choose an industrial Ethernet technology that continues to fulfill their central production goal but which can also deliver data-centric services that can help to differentiate their value to the customer and protect their assets.

The convergence of communication technologies witnessed by industry in the last ten years will continue to accelerate. If current trends continue, one can expect that there will be increasingly fewer purpose-built technologies for particular industries (for example, process versus discrete). However, even more significant is the likelihood that information and communication technologies used in industrial sectors will blend further with other sectors like health care and utilities. How this blending will fully impact the industrial sector has yet to reveal itself, although initiatives such as Industry 4.0 foreshadow it. One way it is sure to impact industry is in that businesses will see themselves less in particular niches, but rather as part of an overall cyber-physical world. 

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