Industry Insights

Orchestrate Your Smart Factory Through an Industrial Network

2019-04-23  |  6 min read 

Becoming a smart factory is a transition that affects nearly every stage of the manufacturing process. It drives exponential growth of data-driven sensors, increases the use of mobile devices in plant operations, and converges the traditionally separate operations technology (OT) and information technology (IT) systems. And it means that the manufacturing floor, with all of its different systems and devices, must now work interoperably, reliably, and consistently. But how exactly can factories achieve that?

To achieve that goal, industrial networks must serve as the foundation of a smart factory. Such networks provide a powerful means of data exchange, data control, process control, and monitoring, and flexibility to connect various machinery. This leads to better performance, more flexible manufacturing, and the ability to connect with business systems to create an end-to-end network architecture.

Ethernet has become the communication technology of choice for building these underlying networks because of two main reasons:

  1. It is based on an open standard, which keeps costs low.
  2. Enterprise networks employ ethernet widely today, which makes data access much simpler—from the control room all the way to the factory floor.

While Ethernet is good for transmitting data, it does not provide a good mechanism for ensuring data gets through. A guaranteed delivery of data with a guaranteed quality of service is a must for all industrial control networks. The industrial network is made up of different components serving multiple purposes and working in concert together. These components include: programmable logic controllers (PLC), robotics components, motors, sensors, human-machine interface (HMI) devices, and integration switches for the cloud and corporate IT network. The resulting shared network, therefore, carries different types of traffic with different time criticality, frame size, and bandwidth requirements. Fortunately, the time-sensitive networking (TSN) standard now offers smart factories a way to guarantee data delivery and minimize jitter using time scheduling for real-time applications requiring determinism.

Industrial network have different components requiring various levels of priority and bandwidth
Figure 1. Industrial networks have different components requiring varying levels of priority and bandwidth

Real Deployment Challenges for TSN

TSN is actually a set of IEEE standards providing reliable, low-latency connections while interoperating with regular Ethernet. The standards work on the following principles to ensure a reliable network:

  • Provide a network-wide precision clock reference
  • Limit network delays to a low and deterministic value
  • Keep non-time-sensitive traffic from interfering with critical traffic

TSN is not a single technology, but rather an ecosystem of technologies working together to achieve these goals. In an industrial network, the network elements (switches or routers), as well as the endpoints (machines or control systems), need to work in tandem while adhering to all or a subset of these standards. But all of the equipment coming from different vendors to the plant floor creates an interoperability challenge when it comes to deployment. At the same time, it is important to prove the viability of real-world scenarios to fuel the adoption of TSN in the industry. What this means is that validating TSN implemented in a smart factory setting is no easy task.

Interoperability challenge in the factory floor
Figure 2. Interoperability challenge in the factory floor

Simulating a Real Traffic Mix in the Lab

Further complicating matters, validation challenges evolve with the application of technologies to solve real network problems. The biggest validation challenge is creating a real-life simulation of these workloads in the lab.

To address this task, modern network engineers need a comprehensive network performance test solution. It must be able to handle powerful devices and large networks; from routing and switching, to data center Ethernet and software-defined networking. It must also be able to validate conformance and performance of the entire Audio Video Bridging/Time Sensitive Networking (AVB/TSN) ecosystem, including the Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP) stack, time synchronization, AVB standards, and TSN standards. One such solution is IxNetwork, from Ixia, a Keysight business.

As the transition of traditional factories into smart factories continues, standards like TSN will become ever more important and its adoption by industry will increase. But for any factory employing the technology, it’s successful implementation will depend on how well it conforms to the evolving TSN protocols. Picking the right network performance test solution can be a factory’s secret weapon in achieving that goal.