System updating …

Right network vital for manufacturers

Posted on Mar 12, 2019 :: Insight From
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Posted by Dan Egan

New technology hits the market at a pace that’s impossible to keep up with. It seems as soon as you make an upgrade, a newer and better technology is available the next month.

Think about your television, cell phone, watch, refrigerator or automobile. Go ahead, be bold — buy the latest tech. It feels great, doesn’t it? You are now the proud owner of the latest and greatest gadget. Reality then sets in and you realize that “state-of-the-art” is just a fleeting moment in time. Twelve months from now, you will be a generation, or possibly two, behind. Are you prepared to buy again?

Now let’s consider the plight of the manufacturer. Of course, they want the latest and greatest capabilities and machinery for their employees. They want to take advantage of technology to improve safety, reliability and productivity. However, they cannot possibly afford to continually upgrade their operating assets. At some point, they need to draw a line in the sand and say what they have is good enough for the next five, 10, 15 years or more.

Manufacturers have to be smart about when and where they invest capital. Take a paper mill, for example. Within a paper mill, there are dozens of systems and machines, each performing a critical task. Each of these systems or machines is likely controlled by a Distributed Control System (DCS) or Programmable Logic Controller (PLC), which are essentially specialized industrial computers. Today, these all have network interfaces of some sort so that machines can communicate with one another and with business systems. A fully integrated paper mill will have hundreds of connected devices spanning multiple generations of technology. 

The networking needs of a manufacturing floor are very different than that of the front office. Employees in an office setting can survive a network outage for minutes, possibly for hours, with minimal impact to the company’s bottom line. While they may lose access to email and printers, the company continues to generate revenue as long as production equipment is able to produce a saleable product.

Conversely, manufacturers cannot tolerate network outages on the plant floor. On the plant floor, time truly equals money. Each minute a piece of equipment is offline costs the company money. When production is compromised, hundreds of lost dollars become thousands of lost dollars in a hurry. 

Machines “talk” to their input/output subsystems and to one another at intervals of less than one second. Many times, these inter-communications are measured in milliseconds. Machines must be online and communicating at all times. As production expands, manufacturers need to integrate new machines with old machines. The challenges of integrating these diverse platforms are not for the faint of heart.

Manufacturers need to find a partner that understands these unique needs and help them design, deploy and maintain robust networks for the plant floor. Priorities will include identification and remediation of communication bottlenecks on existing networks. It may be necessary to work with a variety of business partners to effectively converge plant floor and office systems.

It is important to understand that the most accurate production data resides in the DCSs and PLCs described earlier. If data can be aggregated and contextualized in an expeditious and meaningful way, producers can improve profitability. Perhaps they could avoid a run-off spec or non-conforming product, or modify production to minimize giveaway. Additionally, they could run a particular product on a different shift to take advantage of labor, weather or utility costs. The status quo of running manufacturing plants the way they’ve always been run is not viable in today’s highly competitive environment.

When choosing a partner for your plant floor networking needs, choose one that not only understands the unique needs of the manufacturing environment, but also understands the network technology of yesterday, today and the future. You should look for a team that can help you integrate all your production assets regardless of age. Ultimately, your goal should be to connect the “shop floor to the top floor” to drive effective business outcomes and truly take advantage of the industrial IoT.

Dan Egan is the business director of process and network solutions at Werner Electric Supply Co.