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Modernising & migrating your industrial communication technology

06 July 2015

Do you need to integrate a new machine to your network but it speaks a different protocol? Are you frustrated because you have 87 different protocols in your plant and you can't get them connected to your network without spending a fortune? Would you like to collect and translate data from legacy devices without having to write a custom software application? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you are not alone.

The number of communications protocols used in industrial automation is staggering...and still growing. No company can afford to re-engineer or rip out their existing processes every time they add a new machine or want to collect data into their existing network from some legacy device that is still working well but not connected to the network. Re-engineering is not the answer because no matter how careful you are, there will be problems, interruptions and downtime. And downtime does not pay the bills, cover the payroll or produce any profits.

What you need is a plan that will allow you to layer new data communications technology over the top of what you already have. Then you can gradually migrate your existing equipment and devices into your network, providing you with the ability to collect new kinds of data that will increase your profit margin.

Phased Migration

You can start your phased migration by deciding and prioritising what data you really need to collect or measure for your specific operation. Once you have this list you can begin your phased migration. There are numerous protocol gateways on the market today that will allow you to quickly (and cost-effectively) integrate a new machine into your network or collect data from a legacy device. These gateways act as translators from one protocol to another. They are relatively easy to install and once up and running, they allow your controller to 'talk to' devices that speak a different protocol as seamlessly as if it were all one network.

Need examples? Let's say you have a hydro-electric power facility and your network is either the IEC-104 or DNP3 protocols. You need to track alarms and collect data from the new generators, but your controller communicates via Modbus. This is where adding a stand-alone or in-chassis gateway can increase the functionality, speed and convenience in your plant for a very low cost. Most importantly, it will give you real-time data so you can make critical decisions and avoid downtime.

If you are in manufacturing, you know that change is a constant of life. Sometimes that change comes in having to reconfigure your line to produce a different size of your product or you've bought the latest packaging equipment but you're not going to replace all those older bar code scanners. All of these changes can create a tangled mess when it comes to communication. This is another example of how a phased migration can help you achieve your goals. You can leave those bar code scanners where they are for now. Add a protocol interface gateway that will allow all of your equipment, old and new, to play nicely together.

Industrial Internet of Things

If you haven't heard of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), then you haven't read any magazines or been on any websites lately, because this is the new 'in' thing to talk about. In reality, this is a catch-phrase that some consultant thought up and it usually makes plant managers, and engineers in general, roll their eyes in disgust. Basically the IIoT is all about getting the right data, live and historical, so you can identify any technical or process issues that are detrimental to individual or overall productivity. Usually, this involves integrating wireless as part of your industrial network infrastructure.

We all know that everything is going wireless. Industrial plants and processes around the world are embracing wireless. Now, before you start rolling your eyes and stop reading, hear me out. You may be reacting to outdated information, because industrial wireless technology has made great strides. Going wireless can also help you implement your phased migration plan fairly painlessly because it will allow you to integrate your 'old' equipment into your network.

Do you have a remote device that someone has to manually go to and collect the data? Two industrial radios can solve that problem for you.

What about your building automation system...Is it connected to your network? Think of the money you could save if you had real-time data on how much and where your energy is being used. Do you have a hazardous area in your plant? If you could monitor this area remotely with remote video monitoring you could potentially detect dangerous situations early and contribute to increased work-place safety.

Now I know what you are thinking...You don't trust wireless to be reliable and secure. In reality, you can actually increase your network security and reduce downtime by going wireless. Think about it. How hard is it to walk into a building and simply plug an Ethernet cord into the wall.  Bang...you now have access to the network. Not so with wireless. Today´s wireless solutions have security features such as encryption and advanced firewalls built-in that can actually exceed wired security. You just have to make sure you use them properly. If you focus on the benefits of wireless instead of the fear of pre-conceived ideas, you can build a reliable, robust and secure wireless system that will work hand-in-hand with your wired technology.

Planning for the Future

As you plan your migration and modernization strategy, the first thing you need to do is to stop adding any more custom, proprietary systems that make it hard or impossible to get data out of. Start small and add interface connectivity gateways where it makes the most sense now, and keep adding as your budget allows.

Don't fight wireless. Realize and come to terms with the fact that 10 years from now, literally everything will be wireless. Look into today's industrial wireless products and make a five-year plan on what you will make wireless, so you will be ready for the needs of the future.

ProSoft Technology designs industrial communication solutions that connect automation products seamlessly.