The next generation of industrial Ethernet is blending on-demand information with ease-of-use to improve plant maintenance If it's true that time flies when you're having fun, it's just as true that it drags when you're not. Any plant manager or electrician who's ever watched as the plant they work in grinds to a halt because a motor burned up or transformer failed can vouch for that. Seconds can feel like days as the search goes on for what went wrong, where it happened, and what it will take to fix it. Uncovering the whys and wherefores is a luxury that will come much later, if at all.

You'll never be able to eliminate failure, so wouldn't it be nice if when disaster struck, that costly downtime could be cut and the information you usually search for were available almost instantly? What if when — or sometimes even before — a motor went down, it paged you or sent you a text message to tell you it was ailing? What if you could sit down at your workstation — if you weren't already there — and log on to your company's intranet to check the motor's status and possibly troubleshoot the problem before even stepping out on the factory floor? And what if you could log the specifics of that failure in the motor itself to help in trend analysis later on? You could if your plant were equipped with industrial Ethernet.

From the office to the plant floor. Industrial Ethernet is by no means a new technology. Large industrial process plants with critical power needs have been using it for several years, albeit with proprietary communications protocols. And most businesses have been transferring administrative information, including everything from human resources records to profit and loss reports, over some kind of Ethernet network for an even longer period of time.

As far as some in the industry were concerned, Ethernet's gradual move from the front office to the plant floor was only natural. In fact, it made good financial sense, too. By connecting the business and production sides of a manufacturing facility with the same network and thereby standardizing data exchange, things like maintenance, communications, and procurement could all be managed on one system and be accessible by anyone anywhere in the company. “It used to be that the plant floor manufacturing was separate from accounting or sales, but that's all being tied in together now,” says Darwin McCaffity, regional sales manager for Total Systems Design, a Raleigh, N.C.-based control systems integrator. “The technology is there now with the manufacturing execution systems, and we're seeing a lot of activity there.”

But just like an engineer has to put on a hard hat and safety goggles when walking out to the plant, traditional office type Ethernet hardware isn't suitable for use in the harsh conditions of the industrial setting without an additional level of ruggedness. The fact that most industrial Ethernet components are protected by NEMA 4 rated enclosures helps alleviate some of the problems inherent to the industrial environment like dust, moisture, oil, solvents, and washdowns. However, it can't solve everything.

Heat, vibration, and electromagnetic interference are all more prevalent on a plant floor and therefore must be taken into consideration. “These products won't go into just any kind of environment,” says Haroon Rashid, product marketing manager for human machine interface products at Schneider Electric. “So they're tested for ruggedness to give them a higher temperature rating than a computer's and a resistance to vibration because they're always on the factory floor.”

The recent move to an open networking protocol and continual drop in price may make it available to more facilities and be enough to cause a few hard-hat-adorned heads to turn. “What we're seeing is the democratization of power monitoring and industrial facilities maintenance,” says Bob Kennedy, director of network technologies for Schneider Electric. “It used to be just the big players who were buying and installing this kind of system, but now we're seeing it move out to the masses.”

For the majority of industrial Ethernet's infancy, gaining access to the vast stores of information your power equipment could give you meant committing to one manufacturer's proprietary protocols. Although robust and feature-rich, those systems were expensive and difficult to set up. “Once you connected the hardware, you essentially had no benefits until you also bought the software that went with it,” Kennedy says. “You would have to tell the software where the devices were and what their ratings were and what their IP addresses were. So there may have been a day of set-up for a large system before you even got your first reading of amps and volts.”

Kennedy remembers making a trip to meet with a customer at an automotive plant and seeing firsthand the problems maintenance electricians were having. The customer received word several workers had been sitting on their hands for 15 minutes because the line they were working on had gone down without warning. He put the meeting with Kennedy on hold while he went out to see what was wrong. “We literally walked out over a roof to look at the equipment and see what was going on,” he says. “If he'd had a remote monitoring system through the Ethernet, a message would have popped up on his PC to tell him something was wrong. He may have still had to go to the equipment and do the physical work of restoring the power, but it would have reduced the amount of time those workers sat doing nothing and he wouldn't have had to make that trip just to find out what was going on.”

McCaffity has been working with industrial networking systems for several years, and he says the versatility of open protocols now available for industrial Ethernet is what has made it the standard. “We design and highly recommend open systems,” he says. “Especially in upper-level systems where you're interfacing with enterprise resource-type systems, Ethernet is almost always the primary provider. If you're looking to modify a system, it's much easier on an Ethernet set-up to use product from any manufacturer you want to tie into your existing system instead of having to trash the whole thing.”

Be there even when you can't be. Benny Hale is a busy man. As the electrical supervisor for the Huntsville, Ala., school district, he's responsible for overseeing the maintenance of 46 schools in a 25-mile radius. He has 18 electricians on staff, but considering the fact that they do everything from wiring fire alarms to making sure the phones work, they're not exactly hurting for work. “When you have as many buildings as we do and they're as spread out as they are and you have to maintain everything down to the light bulbs and outlets, 18 people isn't much,” he says with a sigh.

In other words, monitoring power consumption and catching electrical failures before they happen wasn't all that feasible. He's had some help from the Tennessee Valley Authority and the local Huntsville electric utility in a few metering projects to determine why certain motors were continually burning up, but the problems became so chronic that they both eventually threw up their collective hands and stopped coming out. “We didn't even know what exactly to monitor to find out if we had low voltage or high amperage on one leg,” Hale says. “We were just putting out fires.”

Hale now benefits from the same kind of time savings that plant engineers are expecting. Since installing industrial Ethernet-enabled power monitoring systems in nearly a dozen of his schools (he hopes to have the rest of the schools on the network in the next five years) he makes considerably fewer fact-finding trips. “We can see everything going on,” he says. “I can sit in my office and just print out readings for the voltage, amperage, and peak demand any time I want to.”

The frequency of failures has also slowed, and he's been able to catch costly problems before they ate into his already tight budget. “There have been a couple occasions where we've been able to determine our peak demand time,” he says. “We found that at one particular school they were turning on two centrifugal power conditioning units at the same time. We put a stop to that.”

Jack of all trades. Wider acceptance means that not only will more electricians benefit from industrial Ethernet's capabilities, but they'll also be expected to work with it, inevitably giving rise to a new breed of plant maintenance personnel who are three parts electrician and one part IT technician. “In most plants, the need for troubleshooting the Ethernet and other communications systems is a small amount of the total number of problems, but it's very critical when it goes down,” says Brent Clancy, a former instructor at Iowa Central Community College and current training coordinator for UNICCO Service Co. “I think you'll see employers start to look for more computer programming skills, instrumentation installation skills, and specialized cabling skills when recruiting new employees in the electrical maintenance field.”

And as Ethernet technology becomes more ubiquitous, Clancy predicts a blending of job descriptions that will require a different kind of approach to industrial maintenance. “Most IT people would not feel comfortable in constructing the conduit or cable trays needed for the cabling in an Ethernet network, but they could easily do the termination and troubleshooting,” he says. “Most maintenance budgets won't have room for separate teams of both electricians and IT personnel, so integrating the needed skills into some of the existing employees will be critical.”

Obtaining the skills necessary to work with industrial Ethernet networks will be an easier task for young apprentices still learning the ropes, but for the veteran electricians who may not have been exposed to as much networking instrumentation it will mean continuing education classes. “Don't be afraid to get more training,” Clancy warns. “Ethernet will be a growing technology in industry as long as the need for information transmission is there, and I don't see that need going away.”

That's not to say the challenges will be insurmountable. The chances are good that most plant electricians have some experience with networking of some kind that they'll be able to apply to work on Ethernet applications. “Even a little bit of previous knowledge will help with the concepts,” says Ken Hall, national product manager for automation at Graybar. “To give you an analogy, if you're used to working with databases and someone asks you to work with Microsoft Excel for the first time, it might take a little time to pick up all the subtle nuances, but you'll already be familiar with the concept.”

Graybar has been working to help ease the transition for many of those electricians and plant engineers with its series of Technology Showcases and hands-on technical workshops that cover topics like the physical layer of Ethernet and the future of the technology's infrastructure and are held in various cities across the country. And given the increased need for training on the subject, Hall and Graybar have found that many electricians are voluntarily signing themselves up instead of waiting for their employers to make it a requirement.

He points out they may also be encouraged by reasons that aren't necessarily work-related. Now that more electricians have multiple home PCs and may be interested in networking them, making the skills they learn for their Ethernet systems at work applicable in a general sense at home. “What they would be learning to apply to Ethernet on the plant floor will have broad applications going forward with home networking,” he says.

Before working with the monitoring system installed in the Huntsville schools, Hale had limited experience with computers, most of which was confined to Internet surfing. However, he's had little trouble picking it up and learning how to use it. “I'm learning more and more about it every day,” he says. “It's pretty easy to work with it.”

And for the electrician worried that the encroachment of IT-based technologies will have an effect on their job security, there's no need to worry. Consider Rashid's approach. “You will always need a licensed electrician to troubleshoot all of these devices,” he says. “So this will not take away the job of the electricians. It's just taking their skill set to a higher degree.”

Sidebar: Industrial Ethernet Goes Wireless

Although many facilities are just now catching on to the industrial Ethernet trend, the industry is already preparing for the next step in the technology's evolution. The market for wireless Ethernet infrastructure components for industrial use could grow by nearly 35% over the next two years to reach $183.4 million in 2006, according to a report by Natick, Mass.-based Venture Development Corp. (VDC).

“Worldwide Industrial Markets for Wireless Ethernet Infrastructure Components and Network Software” highlights the three benefits of wireless Ethernet that could help propel its adoption:

  • Mobility — Portable operator interface with wireless monitoring and control capabilities allow electricians to access information remotely, enhancing safety.

  • Flexibility — Wireless components make it easier to conducts moves, adds, and changes, which could be especially helpful in areas where expansions are frequent.

  • Cost — Wireless networks eliminate the cost of the cable previously needed to connect devices and controllers.