Industrial network selection advice from Rockwell Automation

Rockwell Automation talked to Control Engineering recently about industrial network selection. The following answers are from Steve Zuponcic, manager, IA Solutions, commercial engineering, Rockwell Automation.


Control Engineering networks
Rockwell Automation talked to Control Engineering recently about industrial network selection. The following answers are from Steve Zuponcic, manager, IA Solutions, commercial engineering, Rockwell Automation.

Q. Do customers and prospects ask advice about what industrial communications network to use?

A. Yes. Customers ask what industrial communications network to use. Generally, there seems to be a good understanding of where current networks fit into a customer's architecture. Networks, like ControlNet, DeviceNet and EtherNet/IP are well understood in the market today. However, as customers look at new installations, they often are interested in understanding where the technology is moving to. This often shapes their decisions about which networks to use as they move into the future.

What percentage of customers and prospects are undecided or change their choice of networks after exploring options?

Most customers understand what networks fit into the space they are looking for. A small percentage may change their choices based on application needs. Some of the criteria that cause reconsideration include cost, power availability on the wire, performance, capacity, diagnostics capabilities and ease of configuration (both software configuration and physical configuration). A major consideration is the installed base and the control system being used. Generally, most customers don't segment their networks from the control systems that support them. This issue is related to the level of integration provided in the whole system between the controllers and the devices they're connected to.

Among the networks you offer with your products, how do you advise selection of one over another?

Most applications still have a segmentation of device-, control- and information-level networks. In today's environment, most vendors offer networks positioned at these levels.
• If the need is to attach devices without the need for external power, then multiple choices are available to do this at the device level in the market today.
• At a control level, the issue is real-time control with an ability to send control information in a timely manner to ensure proper machine sequencing.
• At the information level, it is usually more about higher volumes of data, and less about "real-time" traffic.
In all cases, there is a need to communicate across the networks for diagnostics, troubleshooting, monitoring and programming, so the ability to move across these networks without physically reconnecting is desirable. Admittedly, as the industry moves to more of a convergence of networks, these lines of demarcation are beginning to blur. However, these control functions remain present - the key is to find the proper network or networks that fit the application and customer needs in a specific instance.

What are the most common questions they ask regarding industrial network selection and what are your responses?

Most questions regarding network selection involve the issues discussed earlier: Cost, power availability on the wire, performance, capacity, diagnostic capabilities, and ease of configuration. These questions typically are answered through an analysis of the needs of the application and mapping the networking capabilities against these needs.

What are the most-common misperceptions that you wish customers and prospects could understand better?

In general, there is a perception that "if I just select the perfect network, all my problems will be resolved." Like in any other choice, there are trade-offs in the network selection process. The challenge for vendors is to minimize these trade-offs, while offering these technologies at an affordable price-point. The challenge for the purchaser is to select the proper network technology that meets the needs of the application, while offering enough room for growth in the future.

How have your network-enabled products or services changed in the last few years to accommodate these concerns or challenges?

Today, we have networking services groups that assist customers with network selection, installation and troubleshooting capabilities. Our products continue to offer more and more functionality in terms of new capabilities, ease of configuration, more solid network diagnostics, and increased performance and capacity. These additional strengths are offered without compromising backward compatibility on the wire and minimize the "trade-offs" discussed earlier.

Learn more about Rockwell Automation's integrated architecture (IA) .

Also see Research: Industrial network trends

- Mark T. Hoske, editor in chief, Control Engineering

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