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October 13, 2016 07:11

IoT, Industry 4.0 and the need for Industrial Ethernet

Industrial Ethernet: strategies, solutions and support

Considering the race to develop and adopt new technology in the manufacturing and process industries, it is a fascinating fact that the core of many networking systems – including some of the most advanced – is based on a technology that is nearly 45 years old – Ethernet.

In 1972 Robert Metcalfe and his colleagues at Xerox PARC developed the first Ethernet system in order to connect various computer devices. After some initial reluctance and doubt – documented online in the famous ‘Xerox Ethernet Memo’ from Robert Bachrach – the protocol was eventually patented in 1976. Xerox then went on to develop it further with a number of industry partners and it took another 17 years until the communication solution became an IEEE standard in 1989.

At the time Token Ring and Token Bus were the popular (proprietary) choices on offer, but because Ethernet was more adaptable to market demands coupled to the shift towards inexpensive twisted-pair wiring, these two protocols soon found themselves competing in a market flooded by Ethernet products. By the end of the 1980s, Ethernet had become the clear market leader.

The protocol has undergone major evolution since its inception back in the 1970s and as well as being the number one choice for office-based networks it has since staked a claim to be an incredibly capable and robust protocol and infrastructure for many industrial networks, including manufacturing, process, oil and gas, and the food and beverage industries.

Here enters Industrial Ethernet bringing time critical synchronization, high network reliability and efficiencies suited to motion control and safety applications. Rather than in an office setting, Ethernet for industrial use requires higher degrees of ruggedness in the shape of connectors and cabling, but more important is the need for a much higher degree of Determinism, this is gained specifically from Industry specific protocols including among others  - PROFINET, EtherNet/IP and EtherCAT.

With the advent of Industry 4.0 and the so called Internet of Things (IoT) – which demand seamless interconnection from the smallest sensor up to enterprise-level system and beyond – it is perhaps clearer to see why Industrial Ethernet has become the de-facto choice. Capable of determinism, real-time control and safety functionality coupled to transmission speeds up to 1 GBit/s – with fibre optic variants enabling robust and electrically isolated data transmission over tens of kilometres – the future of Ethernet is virtually guaranteed. Its market saturation is so prevalent that it would take a brave person to bet against its future.

The beauty of having a common network, typically using TCP/IP – the underlying protocol of the internet – within an organisation is that everything can talk to everything else. This has been possible in the past to a certain extent thanks to various translation solutions and communication switches, but extra protocols introduce complexity, lag and the possibility of transmission errors, all things that are inexcusable in today’s fast-paced and agile technical sectors.

Industrial Ethernet fits perfectly for IoT and Industry 4.0 and continues to be the platform of choice within the factory floor. Ideal application examples include motion and machine control, where both speed and system performance are vital.

The primary driver for this is the need for data – especially in light of the IIoT – not just for real-time control, automation, motion and safety, but also for historical trending and performance planning. Again, these capabilities have existed in the past, but never across a seamless network infrastructure – the idea being that anyone at any level in an organisation can access any information to help them to do their job.

Ethernet will be at the heart of all things IIoT, helping to control industry, infrastructure and utilities. With many suppliers providing Ethernet enabled devices such as; Motors, Inverters, Sensors, Encoders and more, the smart connected factories are now taking shape. Ethernet enabled devices provide better performance thus giving better returns on investment.

This however doesn’t meant we need to rush and replace existing infrastructure within our plants and facilities, there are other options available in which Ethernet can be used to retro fit existing legacy installations, bringing them up to date. Find out more here. 

Communication beyond the factory walls

The communication capabilities of Industrial Ethernet go far beyond the bounds of a factory’s walls or an oil rig’s superstructure; this information can be shared in both directions across all levels of the value chain, enabling a head office in another country access real time drilling information, or a maintenance engineers six time zones away to fine tune the machine his company delivered and installed. It also allows traditionally separate systems to interact such as industrial process, energy infrastructures and building management systems.

To exploit all these benefits, it makes sense that companies should by now be developing some form of Ethernet strategy. This is no flash in the pan – 40 plus years of developments proves this – and with the IoT being mentioned in just about every facet of life, the future is almost certainly Ethernet based. So what can companies do?

Many of the leading automation suppliers already have significant assets in place and help programmes to guide companies wishing to adopt the Smart Factory or connected operations. Many existing networks have grown organically and so the migration path is not always clear cut, but it is not as difficult as you may think. By segregating your enterprise or network into primary nodes and application areas, the job becomes more straightforward as the traffic, in terms of volume, distance and speed is easier to define and the physical network requirements (or limitations), such as wireless, copper or fibre optic are self-evident.

Dave Sutton of Schneider Electric gives a great overview of what to consider for any Ethernet implementation strategy.

Once the overall network or architecture has been designed, users then need to look at the information being carried. What is its priority? Is it sensitive? Does it need to stay within the confines of the company? This can be managed by both software and hardware solutions and dedicated industrial security suites exist to shore up any misuse of data. Ongoing management is then vital to make sure the network is working to its optimal capabilities. You also need software that can collect, collate, decipher and disburse the new flood of data in a meaningful way. Again, this is all available from most of the leading providers, along with training and further support.


Favourite things are Family, Music, Judo and Game of Thrones. Also I have the ability to retain and quote useless facts, something that pleases me but can annoy others. My engineering hero - Isambard Kingdom Brunel