Opening up networks for the future

07 January 2019

John Browett explains why open industrial networks are fundamental components of a smart factory.

The factory of the future will be loaded with sensors and devices that record real-time processes and statuses across the factory floor so a a fast, efficient and reliable industrial network is key to successfully sharing and utilising the data being generated. The network architecture should be designed as an interconnected platform, able to link all the nodes together and provide both upstream and localised communication. 

In practical terms, the development and implementation of a suitable digital strategy will be a marathon rather than a sprint. While it may be tempting to re-engineer the whole enterprise at once, this would be overwhelming, compromising the entire digitalisation process. 

So, after having defined a suitable digital strategy, its implementation should take place in stages. It is generally helpful to proceed with small projects that have a clearly defined end-goal that are relatively easy to complete and manage. In this way, the success of each automation project can be measured.

Taking a step-by-step approach results in the installation and upgrade at different times of factory equipment, whose vendors, technologies and protocols can vary. Therefore, it is important to make sure that any new component is compatible and can communicate with the existing ones. 

This may be trickier than expected. Many current products have closed, proprietary standards and protocols that let them exchange data only with solutions from the same vendor. Choosing a single hardware vendor is not always a feasible alternative, though, as users may need to ‘mix and match’ different offerings to select the most suitable tools for their intended applications. In addition, businesses on their journey to Industry 4.0 may face changes in the hardware market and its key players.

While this can cause frustration among manufacturers, not all is lost. Open Ethernet, which is not locked to a specific vendor system, can provide a framework that not only allows the connection of current automation products, but also features a built-in flexibility for future factory revamps, installations and upgrades. Therefore, open Ethernet actively supports innovation.

On the flip-side of proprietary solutions, where hardware and software are tightly coupled together, open Ethernet is based on the complete independence between hardware and software. This ensures a hardware application can run on any Ethernet software platform.

Organisations such as the CC-Link Partner Association (CLPA) are helping businesses to become highly connected by developing open networks to facilitate multi-vendor and multi-platform interoperability. The CC-Link family of network solutions developed by the CLPA features compatibility from over 300 manufacturers, making a huge catalogue of certified, interoperable products enabling end users to select the component that best fits their needs.

Furthermore, the CC-Link family enables seamless transfer of data between communication layers within an enterprise – from shop floor to top floor. More precisely, CC-Link IE Field embraces all the requirements of general machine control, motion control and safety for the factory floor, while CC-Link IE Control is designed for higher level communication, such as directly between controllers in different production cells. 

Action plan 
The CLPA works collaboratively to provide an interoperable environment. For example, the organisation has produced the specification for a coupler with PROFIBUS & PROFINET International (PI). This device allows CC-Link IE and PROFINET networks, and their respective machines to be freely interoperable. Similarly, the CLPA has also developed the CSP+ for Machine OPC UA Companion Specification with the OPC Foundation, allowing for unification of the interfaces between machines and IT systems.

In this way, the CLPA with the OPC Foundation and PI are collaborating on the network of the future, which will ensure openness and interoperability from an intuitive and easy to use platform. 

John Browett is general manager at CLPA Europe.

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