1 June 2002
ARC Forum: Ethernet and Wireless
By Tom Bullock
The annual ARC Manufacturing Strategies for the Plant Floor Forum seems to be the place to go, both to learn more about the latest automation techniques and to rub shoulders with those supplying and using them. The most recent forum was held 11-12 February in Orlando, Fla. I thought Chantal Polsonetti's presentation on industrial Ethernet and wireless was the best, and I'll get to that in a moment.
First, the forum made me reflect on the past. From the time I got into numerical control (NC) of machines in 1962 through much of the 1970s, there were two conferences those at the forefront of automation attended. These were the Numerical Control Society (NCS) Conference and the IEEE Machine Tool Conference. The machine tool conference might seem strange to us now, but it came about because NC's first applications were in the machine tool industry. Both conferences concentrated more on machine tools than on any other application.
However, with the invention of the PLC in the 1970s and NC's spread to other industries, two new conferences took the lead. These were the Programmable Controller Conference (PCC) and the Control Engineering Conference (CEC). PLC usage surpassed CNC usage, and these new conferences enjoyed the benefits of PLC growth. NCS faded and was eventually absorbed by the Industrial Computing Society, which has subsequently been absorbed by ISA. IEEE simply dropped its Machine Tool Conference when attendance lagged.
As automation strategies moved up the corporate hierarchy to involve SCADA, ERP, MRP, and similar higher-level technology, PCC was left behind; that conference/show was purchased by the automotive engineers and converted to an automotive automation conference. CEC was combined with the Design Engineering Conference/Show to become the Industrial Automation portion of National Manufacturing Week. ISA's annual conference was able to bridge the gaps over the years but has been viewed as primarily process oriented, although some credible forays into the discrete arena are occurring.
This left a void in the high levels of factory automation that ARC has effectively filled. Many corporate automation and IT executives attend the ARC conference, which deals with the high-level issues of the day.
One such issue, as I mentioned, concerns industrial Ethernet and wireless technology. ARC research shows Ethernet is no longer just an enterprise and PC network; it's well entrenched among control networks and is making significant inroads at the I/O and device levels. It's still not cost justifiable at these lowest levels, but having common hardware and layers at all levels is a big plus.
Also, a single Ethernet interface could service all three factory levels. This makes vertical integration throughout the facility much smoother and gives the lowest-level smart devices an easy path to the Web. As the PC on a chip becomes a low-cost reality and gets embedded in I/O devices, low-level Ethernet becomes much more attractive. Ethernet is proving to be rugged and commercially accepted. It's based on an international standard (IEEE 802.3) and, due to its great speed, has practically eliminated the problem of determinism.
Wireless was also discussed at length at the forum. Anyone with a cell phone understands the potential for wireless communication throughout a factory. Except for distributing power, wireless could eliminate all machine and factory wiring. It would make machines easier and more flexible to install, plus more mobile. People are estimated to be 22% more productive due to the mobility and instant access that wireless phones provide. How much more productive could a wireless factory be? Because the factory floor lags the office and consumer markets in this type of technology, it will probably be five to 10 years before we have a good answer to that question.
Ms. Polsonetti concluded her remarks with some predictions and recommendations that I'll reiterate here:
- Wireless networks will continue to win new applications.
- Ethernet is emerging as a viable control and device network with broad supplier support.
- Both Ethernet and wireless networks must be intelligently implemented and isolated from competing traffic.
- IP support is critical for remote functionality.
- Divergent network protocols will result in continued implementation of single-vendor systems.
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