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Industrial network infrastructure: Plan 2 steps ahead

March 3, 2020
In this sponsored feature, we talk with Lindsey Parker of Panduit

As industry builds toward a digitally transformed version of itself, future success will often rely on the foundation of physical network infrastructure put in place today. That means new wireless connectivity to enable mobile workers and coordinate the movements of autonomous intelligent vehicles (AIVs) that must work together with the physical network infrastructure that's long been the backbone of industrial connectivity.

Because so much is riding on that physical network infrastructure, Lindsey Parker believes it’s important that individuals charged with designing and implementing solutions for this realm understand the long-term implications of their decisions. Physical cabling is often expected to last a couple of decades or more, says Parker, manager of industrial network business development for Panduit, so it’s critical to satisfy today’s networking infrastructure needs with an eye to how those needs and requirements will change down the road.

CONTROL magazine recently caught up with Parker to learn what factors are most important to consider in an industrial network infrastructure solution, and what steps can be taken to future-proof those investments for the bandwidth-hungry applications that are sure to come.

Lindsey Parker

Industrial Network Business Development Manager, Panduit

Q: Panduit has long been a leader in providing the physical infrastructure for digital networks as well as electrical power for plant-floor and production environments. What have you found are the most important characteristics that industrial end users and OEMs seek in a network infrastructure solution?

A: First off, don’t sacrifice performance and reliability over price and availability. Second, choose partners that understand the unique requirements of industrial environments. Third, plan not just for what you need today but what you’ll need tomorrow and the day after.

It’s important to know, for example, what type of media is suitable for your environment. You don’t always need an IP67-rated enclosure or an M12 connector, but in our world, sometimes you do. Panduit references the TIA 1005-A standard for industrial environments, which provides guidance through mechanical, ingress, chemical/climatic and electromagnetic (MICE) considerations. Knowing when to invest in hardened cabling infrastructure and when to use commercial grade will save you money in the long run, while ensuring your infrastructure can withstand its surroundings.

Also, remember that while the network infrastructure will only represent 7-10% of the spending on a given project, it's got to be properly configured. That means choosing the right topology to provide appropriate performance and resilience. ‘Should be good enough’ just won’t cut it. Rather, consider following a proven approach such as the Converged Plantwide Ethernet (CPwE) reference architectures that Panduit has developed with Rockwell Automation and Cisco to validate network performance. Using those architectures as a guide, you can know exactly what performance to expect from your completed solution.

Q: While physical cabling certainly remains the backbone of plant-floor automation and information networks, how has the infrastructure equation changed with the increased performance of wireless networks, such as those defined by the WiFi 6 standard and 5G from the telecommunications industry?

A: High-performance wireless is an important technology that can deliver new capabilities to industry, but it’s important to realize that it doesn’t replace physical network infrastructure. Rather, the latest high-speed wireless standards such as WiFi 6 actually require more access points in order to deliver that higher speed and bandwidth. And more access points mean more cabling!

That same equation applies to the 5G wireless infrastructure being promoted by the telecommunications industry. But with the WiFi 6 vs. 5G decision, the biggest question isn't performance, but whether you want to own your network outright, or enter into a contract to have that infrastructure managed on your behalf.

Another implication of the latest wireless standards is they all but require Category 6A cabling infrastructure, which supports 10-Gb Ethernet. Many plants today operate on Category 5e cabling, which is only 1-Gb Ethernet capable. Also, since physical infrastructure is likely to outlive the radios connected to it—consider running a second, redundant Cat 6A cable while you’re at it. Think two steps ahead, so you’re better prepared for what’s to come.

Wireless apps need physical infrastructure

When planning for future network infrastructure requirements, remember that the latest high-performance wireless networks need extra access points as well.

Q: What types of applications are made possible by the performance of these new options?

A: The biggest impact of these new wireless networks is around workforce mobility—basic information access first, then layering in really cool stuff like augmented reality. With AR, you see major improvements in employee training and the ability to more effectively utilize a remote workforce. A network engineer in Chicago can work with someone unskilled in networks in a plant in Iowa to troubleshoot a problem. A production operator can learn on the job using virtual work instructions instead of taking a training module in front of a computer screen, and then trying to remember what it said out on the production floor. People expect to work how they live, and wireless communication is in our DNA now. We need it for productivity, safety and communication.

Other technologies like robotics and AIVs will really benefit from wireless technology, too. 5G is expected to be the catalyst for autonomous vehicles on the roads, and I think you can expect to see that be the case in the plant, too. And obviously, the whole IoT world is founded in wireless communications. We’ll see an abundance of new sensors that are lower cost and easier to deploy and configure.

Q: What advice can you offer to industrial networking decision-makers seeking to pursue these speed- and bandwidth-hungry use cases?

A: Don’t jump right in. You really need to take a look at your existing physical infrastructure to understand what your network can support in its current state. If it resembles the cabling that’s out there in most of the industrial world, you’re probably not ready to plug in WiFi 6 access points tomorrow. Bring in the right people to help you plan out the physical layer that will be the foundation for all of this new technology and then make sure it gets installed properly. Once you’ve done that, your investments in high-performance technology will be able to shine.

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