Network convergence is key to IIoT success

05 February 2018

To reap the benefits of smart manufacturing relies on the networks which carry data. Scot Wlodarczak argues that this requires a great deal of thought to be given to how to converge all the plant networks into a single, deterministic one.

The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) offers the promise for manufacturers of optimised business operations. The key to any successful IIoT project lies in the factory data. Without data, extracted from a myriad of sources, delivered to the right application, at the right time – little optimisation can happen. There is a huge amount of useful data trapped within plant floor equipment, including run-time, equipment condition, performance, and quality data. Seamless access to this data is needed to make better business decisions in the plant.

I recently saw a plant drawing where network switches were shown labeled as ‘Connection Boxes’. Since the most critical piece of optimising any factory is data, and that data is transported and managed by the network, isn’t the network the most important part of any plant? Doesn’t it warrant more attention than a ‘Connection box’ on a drawing, and likely in a purchase requisition? Perhaps all manufacturers don’t treat the network this way, but many still do.

The network is the foundation of any plant, and it needs careful planning and attention to ensure IIoT initiatives can succeed. Once there is a reliable, validated, scalable, secure factory networks manufacturers can turn their focus onto the most important task - manufacturing more efficiently, at higher quality levels, and at a lower cost.

Key network characteristics essential for any smart manufacturing initiative to succeed. Manufacturers need solutions to help aggregate, visualise, and analyse digital data from connected machines and equipment, and assure reliable, rapid and secure delivery of data to relevant applications. To do that, they need:

Interoperability: Flattening of the industrial network to improve data sharing
Simplicity: A simple network infrastructure, and ability to manage that network
Intelligence: IoT data transformation via distributed intelligence from edge to cloud for timely action and relevant insight. Access actionable information vs. raw data.
Network automation: Plug and play network deployment to streamline processes and drive productivity
Security: Visibility and control to reduce risk, protect IP and ensure production integrity

Interoperability is key. Manufacturers need to be able to seamlessly pull data from anywhere in a facility. Industrial Ethernet and Time Sensitive Networking (TSN) can do just that. TSN on Industrial Ethernet allows plant networks to be converged into one, secure deterministic network for Industry 4.0. With TSN, Industrial IoT applications run over the same Ethernet infrastructure as time-critical industrial automation and control communications.

?A standard from the IEEE 802 committee, TSN represents an evolution of the standard Ethernet networking capabilities to meet these new demands. With the OPC-UA protocol running over TSN it also becomes possible to have a standard and secure communication from sensor to cloud. TSN fills an important gap in standard networking, namely secure, guaranteed latency and delivery for critical traffic. Automation and control applications require consistent delivery of data from sensors, to controllers and actuators. TSN ensures that critical traffic is delivered in a timely manner, securing bandwidth and time in the network infrastructure for that purpose while supporting all other forms of traffic. Because TSN is delivered over standard industrial Ethernet and guarantees network performance for critical communications, control networks can take advantage of best practices for security that have been developed into Ethernet for decades. TSN can eliminate network silos that block reachability to critical plant areas and can help extract real-time data for analytics and business insights. It has already achieved rapid adoption across the ecosystem of industrial automation vendors, and that ecosystem continues to grow.

Network simplicity?
Choosing a single network infrastructure, capable of handling TSN, Ethernet IP, Profinet, and CCLink traffic can significantly simplify installation, reduce maintenance expense, reduce downtime, and most importantly gives the freedom to specify best of breed machine controls from any automation vendors, knowing they will all talk through the same network hardware. Managing network infrastructure, with tools that operations, and not just IT can understand is also key. User-friendly tools should be employed which operations can use to troubleshoot network issues quickly, and which allows them to visualise and understand what is connected to what. Knowing for example, that an Allen Bradley PLC (with detailed Series, and firmware version information) is connected to Port 1, and a remote I/O block is connected to Port 2 can help speed system commissioning and troubleshooting. Does your network vendor offer validated designs so you can quickly roll out new network deployments, and ensure the performance of your automation equipment? They should!

Intelligence within the network is also crucial. Manufacturers need to access information quickly, filter it on the fly, and present actionable data to better understand the processes and identify areas for improvement. Clipboards and spreadsheets will become a thing of the past!

Can your network support edge application deployment - running applications on the network hardware to make more intelligent decisions, faster – closer to the data itself? One example might be running edge applications to ease the burden of connecting legacy technologies and protocols, versus adding the cost and complexity of gateways? Can you run statistical analysis on the data at the factory edge to reduce the bandwidth required upstream of your plant floor? Once these edge applications are deployed make sure the tools are available to manage and implement them with confidence, at scale. Managing massive amounts of data can also quickly become a problem. Systems that can extract, compute, and move data to the right places at the right time are needed.

Network automation is also critical as the network grows, and uptime becomes more important. Does your network, and the supporting tools have the capability for plug and play network deployment to speed system commissioning, and reduce downtime when a switch fails in the dark of night? Having systems in place that automatically set correct switch security settings, communication parameters, and switch settings are important as the network grows, and the attack surface along with it. Proper network settings are critical to meet smart manufacturing objectives. You’ve automated the factory, so look for network vendors who support automated network deployment.

Lastly, but definately not least, security is paramount for manufacturers as the attacks of the past year have shown. As manufacturing networks grow, the attack surface or vectors for a malicious attack increase as well. The Cisco 2017 midyear cybersecurity report showed that nearly 50% of manufacturers use six or more security vendors in their facilities. The multitude of products and vendors in manufacturing settings can create a confusing picture for security experts. The complexity speaks to the need for both IT and OT teams to narrow their focus on security threats - for example, using only products than can address the most immediate concerns. Manufacturers should look to vendors who can implement comprehensive network security, and implement a defense-in-depth policy that includes simple protections for physical assets, such as blocking access to ports in unmanaged switches or using managed switches in their plant network infrastructure.

No single product, technology or methodology can fully secure industrial operations. Protecting critical manufacturing assets requires a holistic defense-in-depth security approach that uses multiple layers of defense (physical, procedural and electronic) to address different types of threats. Manufacturers need a network that can share data with security platforms, and third-party security products and work together to help extract the identity of plant floor assets from operations tools deployed on the plant floor, and feed them to network and security platforms implemented in the process zone, manufacturing zone, and demilitarised zones (DMZ) – a method for separating the internal LAN from untrusted external networks that usually reside on the Internet – to provide pervasive security across the entire plant.
There is a massive pot of gold at the end of the Industry 4.0 rainbow. Improved overall equipment effectiveness, lower costs, enhanced innovation and time to market are all there for the taking. The path to that destination is a lot clearer if you have a solid road, or foundation to walk on. The network is that path, so make sure it has a lot more thought put into it than a ‘connection box’!

Scot Wlodarczak is industrial marketing manager for Cisco.

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