Industrial Networking Basics

Industrial networking is the use of a system of interconnected equipment that is designed to monitor and control physical equipment in manufacturing environments. These networks are quite different from that of a traditional network used in an office or home environment. The contrasts and deviations are due to the specific requirements that are needed in a production setting.

In spite of the operative distinctions between industrial and enterprise networks, there has been a growing integration between the two systems. One reason this is being seen is because the technology in use in industrial networks shows a greater reliance on Ethernet switches and web standards, especially at higher levels of the network structure.

This linkage has resulted in the need for engineers who are involved in the design and maintenance of networks to be familiar with both traditional business concerns, including network security, as well as the customary industrial concerns such as determinism and response time.

Industrial networks are used in many mechanical domains including almost every situation that requires machinery to be monitored and controlled, including manufacturing, electricity generation, food and beverage processing, transportation, water distribution, wastewater disposal and chemical refinement including oil and gas. Each industry needs an industrial control network with its own set of slightly different, but generally similar, requirements.

In most cases, industrial networks have a much deeper construction than commercial networks. The commercial network of a company generally consists a Local Area Network (LANs) at a branch or office that is connected to a Wide Area Network (WAN). On the other hand, even the smallest industrial networks tend to have a hierarchy that is at least three or four levels deep.

These networks frequently include one level that consists of the connection of instruments to controllers, along with the interconnection of the controllers at the next level. The Human Machine Interface (HMI) is on the third level and the final network level is designed for data collection and external communication. Different protocols and/or physical media are required at each level. In addition, each level requires gateway devices to facilitate communication.

Since industrial control networks are connected to physical equipment, the failure of a system has a much more severe impact than that of commercial systems. The various effects of the failure of an industrial network can include damage to equipment, production loss, environmental damage, loss of reputation and even loss of life. Although it is not always caused by control system failure, numerous industrial disasters including the infamous Deepwater Horizon, show the intense impact of a severe industrial failure.

Industrial Ethernet switches allow Ethernet to be used in industrial environments, even though existing serial-based protocols have already been developed to address industrial communications requirements. This is important because it can be shown that the use of Ethernet presents several advantages that should be incorporated into the newer protocols. This includes the hefty amount of research that has gone into developing Ethernet, as well as the cheap and readily available Ethernet hardware and the fact that its use can allow both business and production to work on one system.