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Can a flowmeter bridge the IT/OT divide?

June 11, 2021

If marketplace adoption is the primary judge, then the process industry's first-generation digital fieldbus standards significantly underachieved. Indeed, the venerable 4-20mA analog standard, augmented by HART, remains the predominant field communications modality. Sure, process variable updates are nearly instantaneous, but transmission of all that other data that our IIoT applications crave is slow as dirt relative to current-day expectations.

But what if one instrument could preserve the stodgy but dependable operational technology (OT) connectivity we’re all used to, while also plugging into the speedy new IT networking standards that will finally deliver us to Industry 4.0? ABB had some ideas, and those concepts are now embodied in the company’s latest generation of CoriolisMaster and ProcessMaster (magnetic) flowmeters. Control recently caught up with Vanessa Klekar, U.S. technical sales specialist manager for ABB Measurement & Analytics, to discuss how these instruments can provide a future-proofed bridge from yesterday’s expectations to tomorrow’s.

Q: These new Coriolis and magnetic flowmeters represent some true industry firsts. Can you tell us more about what makes them unique?

Vanessa Klekar

U.S. Technical Sales Specialist, Manager, Flow Products, ABB Measurement & Analytics, [email protected] 


A: At ABB, we appreciate that most flowmeters being purchased today will go into brownfield sites, and it’s going to be some years before a greenfield facility will be based exclusively on Ethernet from the ground up.

So, our new meters come equipped with both 4-20mA analog connectivity, as well as a plug-in Ethernet board. You don’t have to choose one or the other, instead you can have either or both. This means you can connect your flowmeter’s analog output signal to an existing DCS I/O module, and use your Ethernet connection for speedy, secure access to all that other data. And when you’re ready to do control via the Ethernet connection, you can do that, too. We even offer the option of retrofitting existing ABB FEP630, FEW630 and FCB400 meters to bring Ethernet connectivity to our global installed base.

Further, there are two available versions of the plug-in Ethernet board. The four-wire version includes an integrated, two-port Ethernet switch, so that all topologies—ring, star and daisy chain—are supported. Or, the two ports can allow redundant network communications. Significantly, the ABB approach provides an option to draw its power from the Ethernet loop (Power over Ethernet, or PoE). They're the first flowmeters of their kind to offer a PoE option. We also created a more rugged alternative to the standard RJ45 connector used by most suppliers that's vibration resistant and doesn’t require any special tools.

Q: PoE is particularly appealing because, like 4-20mA, it obviates the need for separate power wiring. What other benefits does it offer?

A: First, it’s simple. It uses standard Ethernet cables like a typical network and a centralized power supply unit that satisfies all device requirements. Second, it’s flexible. With remote and centralized power, the instrument can be installed wherever needed, regardless of any power supply in range. It can also easily extend to the nearest Ethernet switch or be boosted to an existing network by using a midspan PSE (power sourcing equipment) if need be. Another advantage of PoE is it can cut costs by taking advantage of off-the-shelf components—even those designed for office environments where appropriate. And, since it needs only one standard Ethernet cable, it can cut installation efforts in half. Finally, by leveraging a standard, centralized uninterruptible power supply, it can boost overall system reliability and be remotely powered down during periods of low usage or for security or safety reasons.

Q: Ethernet really only describes the physical network layer—what protocols are available in the new meters?

A: One of the great things about Ethernet is that most of the automation industry’s go-to protocols were either created for Ethernet or have been brought over to that physical network layer, and more than one can run on the same network at the same time.

Currently, EtherNet/IP is supported for deterministic use cases such as control loops and cyclic communication of process values. Modbus TCP is another option for communication with remote terminal units (RTUs) and flow computers. Also in the works are support for Profinet and OPC UA, which promises to enable a broad new range of automation solutions and unprecedented ease of integration and communication.

The flowmeters can also speak the secure language of the web, HTTPS, and like all ABB products, they’ve undergone extensive vulnerability testing at the ABB Digital Security Assessment Center before release. The meters’ integrated webservers are based on the ABB Ability Cyber Security framework, ensuring robust and secure support during instrument commissioning and troubleshooting. They also boot securely, with each flowmeter featuring a public/private keypair for integrity protection of its firmware. The ability to remotely deliver firmware updates will also debut soon.

The integrated webserver also generates QR codes to facilitate access to configuration, diagnostics and measurement data. It also allows remote verification of all parts of the flowmeter, and provides insights into its operating condition with automatically generated reports through our SRV500 measurement verification software.

Q: What other future developments will the addition of Ethernet to your instrumentation platform make possible?

A: With the addition of Ethernet connectivity, we’re future-proofing our instruments and paving the way for continued convergence of IT and OT technologies. This includes the potential use of non-industrial protocols such as video, audio and VOIP on the plant-floor, as well as emerging developments with implications for the process automation such as time-synchronized networking (TSN) and network traffic orchestration. And while it’s hard to predict the new use cases we’ll be exploring five or 10 years from now, it’s a safe bet that Ethernet will be at their foundation.

To learn more, visit https://campaign.abb.com/ethernet_flow.

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