Smart Machines & Factories
Manufacturing in the information age
Published:  09 February, 2017

A unified network fabric based on standard IP with a strong physical infrastructure supports reliable, secure networks that take advantage of the Industrial Internet of Things. Amaechi Oduah, marketing solutions manager, EMEA,

Panduit Europe Ltd, reports.

The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) is expected to connect an astonishing 50 billion devices by 2020. This is providing deeper insights into operations and new opportunities to improve quality, productivity, efficiency and security.

New challenges come with new opportunities. The demand to collect and analyse production information in real time is driving the need for manufacturers to converge their historically disparate industrial and enterprise networks into a single network architecture. A well-designed and reliable physical layer, known as the “network fabric,” serves as a critical foundation and strategic business advantage for forward-thinking manufacturers who want to differentiate themselves from the competition.

We’ll discuss the importance of the network fabric in today’s information-enabled manufacturing environments, the steps manufacturers can take to capture its value, and a methodology for improving an existing network to a higher maturity level.

Manufacturing in the information age

The IIoT is reshaping the plant floor. A rapid influx of smart equipment and connected devices that can communicate on an industrial Ethernet network is allowing manufacturers to understand machine and process performance like never before.

Equally important to what is being connected is how it’s being connected. Innovative technologies are helping to manage the infrastructure, deploy devices and share information in new ways.

Some examples include:

• Cloud computing can remotely monitor — in real-time and from a centralised location — equipment that is dispersed across multiple sites, and can provide expanded processing power and storage capacity as operational needs change.

• Virtualisation decouples software from hardware, providing improved application uptime, increased deployment flexibility and faster upgrades.

• Wireless technology can reduce cabling costs and allow easier sharing of data, such as to mobile devices on the plant floor.

The result of this abundance of information and seamless connectivity is faster decision-making, improved collaboration and new opportunities to improve productivity.

It also represents a major turning point in how manufacturers design, install and maintain industrial networks. The traditional approach of using separate IT and operations technology (OT) networks impedes seamless connectivity, and is too limiting and insecure to be a valid option. Instead, manufacturers require a single unified network architecture, built on a single physical network fabric leveraging the full power of internet protocol and security defense-in-depth (DiD).

The unified network fabric

The unified network fabric includes all cabling, wireless, switching, computing and storage systems, and uses standard, unmodified IP connectivity to help provide secure and open communications.

Network fabric is an industry term that describes a network topology in which devices pass data to each other through interconnecting switches. Industrial plant automation systems are evolving from point-to-point, dedicated connections to a more switch-centric design where traffic can be passed seamlessly with much greater flexibility and enhanced throughput. Instead of inflexible direct connections between devices, switches and a converged plant architecture allow data to be switched and routed securely across the plant automation system and upstream.

In addition, the network fabric can be the deciding factor in an industrial firm’s success. Similar to a “fabric unraveling,” poor planning and reactive decision-making can make a network become a large tangle of connections and switches that can cause plant downtime, security breaches and safety issues.

Consider these five key areas when designing and deploying a network fabric:

1. Scalability: Plant systems growth, new technology adoption or changing bandwidth requirements can be difficult to predict. Allowing for infrastructure growth and scalability can help avoid “rip-and-replace” upgrades, reduce reliability risks and shorten deployment times.

2. Reliability: Network downtime is becoming intertwined with machine downtime as more of the automated production process is brought onto the network. Base the network fabric on a robust architecture, follow industry standards and use IT/OT collaboration to help achieve high reliability across the industrial plant.

3. Security: A DiD security strategy is an industry recommended best practice. It uses multiple layers of protection at the physical, network, computer, application and device levels to establish several security fronts.

4. Ease of Deployment: A well-planned, thoughtful approach to the network fabric helps ease design and deployment, and reduces the likelihood of start-up or operational issues. Use standards such as ISA-99 and TIA-1005 and validated architectures such as Converged Plantwide Ethernet (CPwE) to design the network fabric with greater confidence. Use structured cabling best practices and validated integrated solutions to reduce installation time and startup risks.

5. Innovation: The network fabric provides a platform for taking advantage of new innovations. For example, Power over Ethernet (PoE) uses a single cable to deliver power and data, which can reduce wiring complexity and lower installation and maintenance costs. A structured network of wired and wireless connectivity creates opportunities for deploying new services such as remote monitoring and edge intelligence for condition monitoring and predictive analytics.

A maturity model that assesses network fabric

Panduit developed the Network Fabric Maturity Model to help manufacturers map out their journey to a unified network fabric. This model outlines the four levels of a network fabric — from multiple unmanaged plant-floor networks to a fully unified network fabric.

The Network Fabric Maturity Model outlines the four levels of a network fabric, from multiple unmanaged plant-floor networks to a fully unified network fabric, to help industrial firms understand where they stand and provide guidance to help them progress through each level toward the goal.

The model can help industrial firms understand where through each level toward the goal. It’s about shifting industrial networks from focusing solely on the organisational silos of the plant automation system to a more holistic focus on mission, vision and overall business outcomes.

Improving from Restrictive to Functional — Level 1 to Level 2

Restrictive networks often result from disregarding OT/IT best practices in favour of taking shortcuts. This can include using proprietary fieldbus and tiered networks to save on training and learning time, or using commercial-grade unmanaged switches to save on costs. Such shortcuts can lead to network sprawl, islands of data, and security holes.

Elevating the network infrastructure to the Functional level requires a more planned, standards-based approach, gradually migrating on a priority basis.

These are three key objectives:

1. Spend the time and resources needed to understand the plant-floor environment. Identify physical and security risks, from the environmental conditions in which the equipment must operate to security holes such as open computer ports. Also, assess cell/area zone designs and apply best practices, such as using VLANs, managed switches and resilient topologies.

2. Specify media, grounding and connectivity solutions that satisfy plant-floor requirements. Follow OT standards such as TIA-1005-A for harsh environment connections. Use IT best practices, such as those outlined in ANSI/TIA 568-C and TIA-1005-A for structured cabling, which can offer higher cable density, greater network longevity, and better flexibility than point-to-point cabling.

3. Close security holes in the physical layer. Closing the security holes often found in Restrictive network architectures requires implementing a physical security foundation. This can include using physical and virtual segmentation to help limit user access to defined segments, and using lockable enclosures to secure plant connections.

Evolving from Effective to Innovative — Level 3 to Level 4

Converged IT/OT networks is the defining characteristic of an Innovative network architecture, as it provides new opportunities for collecting and using data across a manufacturing enterprise, and serves as the foundation for DiD security. Achieving a fully unified network fabric that can deliver on its full potential requires scaling the network foundation with adequate bandwidth and structure for the sudden increase of wired and wireless connections and compute resources at the edge.

These are three key objectives:

1. Assess the network infrastructure’s capability to support the extension of computing and mobile access capabilities with new IIoT architectures. Designing an infrastructure to support remote-access technology, for example, can allow engineering specialists to monitor and access equipment from a centralized location, or allow IT personnel to service plant-floor computers from their desks. Mobile technology can deliver plant-floor visibility anywhere in a facility — rather than only in a fixed location — for faster responses and decision-making.

2. Collaborate with IT/OT for network visibility documentation and diagnostic tools for sustainable value throughout the network life cycle. Use of tools designed for network discovery and documentation of plant industrial Ethernet networks fills a gap for a comprehensive view of enterprise-to-plant convergence down to the device level. Likewise, providing plant-floor and operations real-time diagnostics of network alerts speed troubleshooting and improves plant uptime.

3. Develop test beds and pilots for IIoT architectures that leverage cloud and fog computing for a broader network fabric that includes gateways and wireless mesh networks. For instance, the cloud might not be an option for manufacturers when real-time processing of manufacturing data is required. Instead, fog computing can use intelligent gateways and integrated services routers to provide local, real-time data processing closer to the machine. Additionally, wireless mesh solutions that connect to the network fabric can provide opportunities to deploy wireless sensors cost-effectively.

The journey to achieving a fully unified Level 4 network fabric begins with understanding your network’s current maturity level. Readers can visit: to determine where your network resides on the model.

Fulfilling the promise

IHS Technology predicts the industrial automation sector will account for nearly three-fourths of all connected devices by 2025. The potential for value generated by all these industrial connections will drive new business models, transforming productivity dramatically. The future competitiveness of almost all manufacturing companies hinges on how rapidly they can embrace convergence and IP technologies.

A unified network fabric based on standard IP with a strong physical infrastructure will serve as the foundation of tomorrow’s information and connectivity needs, and will support converging the networks to gain robustness, visibility and reliability. Using maturity models can help guide both the OT staff and IT staff to accelerate progress to more effective and innovative.

IIoT and network training opportunities

Trained system integrator and installation partners as well as vendor-provided services can help you bridge the IT and OT gap to support the IIoT.

In addition, through the Industrial IP Advantage online, you can learn how to implement and manage networked industrial control systems.

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