Road map to network convergence
By Robin Cobb, PE, PMP
A global beverage manufacturer was having network performance and communication disruptions between factory floor assets. These disruptions were causing unplanned production losses due to network convergence timing issues.
The existing network was more than 15 years old with an aging infrastructure of wiring and Ethernet. Although new data requirements for plant reporting were initiated, the system had not been upgraded to keep up with the manufacturer’s changing needs. New components were continually being “bolted on” to the old infrastructure, and it was close to collapsing. To further complicate matters, there was no in-house expertise to upgrade the network.
An integrator was engaged to evaluate and design a network architecture that focused on improving overall bandwidth utilization and efficiency across all manufacturing areas. The new network requirements were to configure and install a reliable, expandable, and robust infrastructure and maximize the benefits of plant-to-business network convergence. It was going to take a new high-performance copper and fiber system to meet the manufacturer’s requirements for enterprise and industrial networking standards.
A network audit was conducted using diagnostics, and a design plan and a schedule for implementation were created. The project team reviewed the design plan with the manufacturer’s stakeholders for alignment. It was crucial to be in alignment with all stakeholder groups, because the project touched every area of the plant. Support was needed from information technology (IT), all department managers, plant engineering, and control support technicians.
The project would need to be invisible to plant operations with minimal disruptions. To accomplish this, the installation and network migration schedules had to be constantly adjusted to the plant’s schedule.
It was determined that the network upgrade would include a change from the original mesh topology to a star topology. The new topology plan was to use supplier-supported switches along with supplier-supported fiber and copper solutions for reliability and flexibility. Using these solution providers increased the manufacturer’s technical resource support through the partner networks of the technology suppliers.
Laying the foundation
Step 1: The implementation began with the lowest risk area. The first step was to install and configure the new fiber infrastructure of the network, connecting the new infrastructure to the existing infrastructure. The installation was focused on replacing the existing Ethernet copper cabling and existing fiber-optic cabling with a new cabling system that would support the updated topology and designed bandwidth. Validation was completed to ensure that the existing network could effectively communicate with assets on the new network before proceeding. To reduce migration risk from old, dated media, the project team installed all new copper and fiber in parallel to the existing network. With this parallel installation, the project team could reduce installation risk, continue with day-to-day operations, and have a seamless migration cutover. In this project, the installation was approximately 60 percent of the total project cost.
Step 2: The next step was to move all of the plant’s industrial servers to the new infrastructure. The project team then tested and validated all communications with existing plant operations. This installation required the most resources from the facility’s IT support group. Once validated and stable, it was time to migrate the other automation components and operational areas to the new network.
Step 3: The next several migration areas followed the operational flow of the plant, strategically migrating each area from low risk to high risk, ending in a low-risk area. The team validated each area in real time against an agreed upon checklist, requiring 100 percent accuracy before moving to the next area.
Step 4: After completing the migration of each of the operational areas, the team conducted a network health assessment. This step involved connecting to the core switch and running a number of tests, checking for any problem areas or communication disruptions.
Continuity of performance
The team delivered training to the appropriate operations support groups as it followed its road map for the process. As one area was validated and running smoothly, hands-on training and the handoff was conducted before moving to the next area.
The updated network provided the desired performance results and delivered a system that is secure, sustainable, and scalable—eliminating network-related production downtime. The updated network also increased the plant’s networking support structure and ease of maintenance, and introduced new technologies that can be used in future plant projects.