New products emerge on the market, tried-and-true approaches remain viable, and wireless shines in energy exploration.
By Patrick McLaughlin
Indicators from multiple research and analyst firms reveal rays of optimism for the importance of information technology (IT) and networking in the manufacturing sector. Recently Deloitte (www.deloitte.com) released its "2013 Global Manufacturing Competitiveness Index." In its summary brief of the index, Deloitte explains, "The initiative is based, in part, on the responses of more than 550 senior manufacturing executives worldwide to a wide-ranging survey discussing the current business environment and global competitiveness in the manufacturing sector."
The index ranks countries according to their current competitiveness, on a scale that maxes out at 10. A separate ranking within the index tabulates the global drivers of manufacturing competitiveness. That ranking also scales to 10 and within it, "physical infrastructure" ranks sixth with a score of 6.45. That general category incorporates a range of infrastructure systems, including telecommunication and IT capabilities.
Deloitte said, "Executives … noted specifically the cost and process efficiencies, as well as productivity improvements that directly result from access to quality infrastructure. This driver includes support for the basic logistics involved in the movement of physical goods, as well as the efficient movement of information and energy through technology-based infrastructure investments in smart-grid, broadband and other networks.
"When evaluating the factors that create a competitive advantage with respect to infrastructure, executives consistently noted the strength of a nation's electricity, information technology and telecom systems as the most important infrastructure driver in measuring a country's manufacturing competitiveness. Strength in technology-based infrastructure bodes well for emerging economies like China, India and Brazil, which are making significant infrastructure investments in areas that can not only support current technologies but also provide much-needed capacity for future innovations and mass adoption of new technologies."
Many of the CEOs who recognize the importance of such IT systems presumably "walk the walk" by outfitting their own facilities with capable IT and networking systems. Their options for doing so continue to expand.
One cable manufacturer known for its hardened, industrial-ready products, Quabbin Wire and Cable Co. (www.quabbin.com), includes reference documents and articles on its website for professionals delving into industrial cabling and networking projects. Entitled "Installing Industrial Ethernet in hazardous industrial environments," the article reads in part, "Most commercial or office Ethernet hardware cannot survive the rigors of the factory floor. They must be redesigned. Although the signaling protocol is similar, both the cabling media and active gear must be protected from harsh conditions.
"Like commercial applications, industrial networks will have a combination of copper, fiber and wireless infrastructure; but all must be hardened. Unlike commercial environments, industrial process plants are often reconfigured and there is generally no requirement for a 20-year warranty. Instead, emphasis is placed on elimination of downtime and system reliability, because if a control system shuts down, an entire process plant stops, leading to losses of thousands of dollars per minute."
Quabbin provides a range of cable and cords suited for industrial environments like those described in this and other articles it has produced.
While some cabling products have been serving industrial environments for long periods of time, innovations continue to occur in the realm of technology and design. As an example, Panduit (www.panduit.com) recently introduced an industrial-automation zone system, which the company says is intended to reduce installation time and save operational costs.
The Integrated Network Zone System "enables seamless communications between control rooms and the manufacturing floors within industrial facilities," Panduit said when announcing the system in March. "Available in three configurations, the system includes an Allen-Bradley Stratix Industrial Switch for faster deployment and superior management and diagnostics. The switch is preassembled into a NEMA-rated 4/12 enclosure with structured cabling and cable management integrated together, using proven design and installation best practices." Panduit says a 75-percent reduction in deployment time is achievable using this system.
Media-conversion technology has been a staple of industrial networking for many users. The term "media converter" sometimes underrates the technologies and products, because these devices also function as protocol-converters in many cases—a capability that proves valuable in many industrial systems. Another March introduction saw Weidmuller (www.weidmuller.com) bring to market a set of serial-to-fiber-optic converters, which the company explained "provide a simple and reliable method for integrating serial port devices into Industrial Ethernet networks for transmission over longer distances," and "help maintain existing automation components while upgrading the overall infrastructure."
The company also noted that in many large-facility environments, "The challenge today is overcoming the 15-meter cable length limit when using copper-based interfaces for RS-232 … Weidmuller's solution offers conversions from RS-232, RS-422 or RS-485 into fiber-optic signals."
As is the case in corporate enterprise networking, wireless connectivity options are growing in viability and deployment in industrial settings. The Wireless Industrial Networking Alliance (WINA; www.wina.org) advances the cause for wireless in these environments. WINA recently pointed to a market report from research firm ON World (www.onworld.com) that highlights the oil and gas exploration market as one vertical in particular that benefits from the use of wireless technologies, including sensor networks.
When announcing the availability of the report "Oil and Gas Wireless Sensor Networks," ON World commented, "Wireless sensor networking [WSN] has emerged as a key technology for accelerating oil and gas exploration and advancing the latest extraction techniques. Oil and gas exploration, production and pipelines made up 27 percent of the global industrial WSN market in 2011."
The firm collaborated with WINA as well as the International Society of Automation and HART Communication Foundation to conduct a survey on WSN, with 216 industrial automation professionals. "Over half are involved with oil and gas, and 8 percent of the end users have deployed over 1,000 wireless field devices," the firm said. "Oil and gas companies are migrating to standards-based wireless mesh sensor networking. Two-thirds are planning a standards-based approach for future deployments." ::
Patrick McLaughlin is our chief editor.
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