There has been a lot of talk lately about an impending "third industrial revolution." The first was, of course, the industrial revolution in Britain in the 1800s, and the second revolution came from Henry Ford's invention of the moving assembly line. This third industrial revolution requires that all industries find a greener, faster, and smarter way to produce the products the world demands.
The challenge lies in the limited resources (energy and material) available to serve more people using more products, particularly as demand increases in developing countries in the future. At Texas Instruments (TI), we believe a key component to the third industrial revolution involves innovation in Industrial Ethernet.
The rise of the Internet of Things (IoT) usually focuses on households and white goods, but increasingly, it is being applied to factory automation as part of the third industrial revolution. Sophistication in networking and an increasing number of connected machines is bringing faster, more flexible communications to the factory floor, helping manufacturers produce more efficiently and enabling them to respond more quickly to changing market conditions.
Businesses have the unique opportunity to take information from databases and rapidly make changes to design and manufacturing, whereas before, this type of information would have to go through a series of office procedures before ever reaching the factory. Industrial Ethernet can send the information directly to the factory for on-the-fly adjustments, enabling "smart factories" to produce a greater variety of products in greater quantities while using less power. Better communication across further distances and among the hundreds of thousands of nodes in a factory can also create better coordination and efficiency while detecting and reporting problems in a timely manner, ultimately maximizing productivity and minimizing cost.
This all sounds good, but there is a catch. Of course, networked control systems for factories are nothing new -- manufacturers have been introducing such systems for years. The challenge is that these systems are often proprietary and sometimes incompatible with each other. The end result is equipment in parts of the plant that cannot "speak" to other equipment. To create a truly smart factory where efficiencies are maximized, a standard in network communication must be established.
We believe Ethernet is the solution. Ethernet is already the overwhelmingly accepted choice for data networks. It is well understood and supported, offers a wide address range, and transmits with much higher bit rates than older serial communications used for a variety of equipment. Together these benefits result in more precise control. Since Ethernet is the standard for data networks, interfacing factories with these networks -- a key feature of advanced automation -- becomes simplified.
There are some modifications that need to be made to evolve Ethernet into Industrial Ethernet. Deterministic data delivery, support for time-triggered events, connections over factory distances, topologies that ensure safety and reliability -- all of these factors have been specified for Industrial Ethernet to meet these application requirements. The challenge of introducing Industrial Ethernet lies in hardware and software technology solutions to simplify development of Ethernet connections already found in factories while also having the ability to communicate with older serial networks. These solutions can enhance communication, but must do so affordably and reliably.
What do you think of Industrial Ethernet as an integral part of the Factory of the Future? Please comment below.
— Thomas Leyrer is a system application manager for TI's Industrial Automation business.