I visited a manufacturer customer recently (I’ll refrain from mentioning their name to protect the guilty – you’ll see in a moment) and received a tour from their IT lead for the manufacturing plant. He was gracious enough to let me take these photos:
He explained to me that he was asked to implement a network infrastructure to gather plant data and deliver them to various internal customers (finance, logistics, supply chain, engineering). He worked with his Operations and Manufacturing Engineering peers to determine where the “nodes” of data concentrators were, then he plumbed Ethernet to each of them. With some of the limitations of Ethernet (e.g., 100 meter drop lengths) and limitations of the physical plant itself (e.g., conduit & cable tray capacity), he implemented four Ethernet switch cabinets (two of which are in the photos) to collect the data from about 50 nodes each and home run fiber links to his on-site control room.
I understood the need to have switches out in the plant environment – I suspect this is very common in numerous plants throughout the world. My concern is with their choice of Ethernet switches, especially considering where they’re installed. The switches (I will also refrain from mentioning the brand) are “office grade” switches – identical to what the IT leader has installed in his control room. However, as you can see from the photos, this equipment is subjected to a very different environment: temperature, humidity, vibration, limited (and dirty!) air flow (note the cabinet with the open door). I believe this will reduce the lifespan of his installed switches, leading to unplanned downtime as he & his team will have to replace these when they fail.
My advice to the Ops & Manufacturing Engineers out there: Don’t let your IT colleagues make this mistake! Help them by consulting with them on some of the extremes in your environment.
To the IT leaders out there who have projects that require installing Ethernet equipment in a manufacturing environment: Make sure you select & install equipment that will survive in that environment. Note – you CAN mix brands with your office Ethernet equipment – it will all work together (it is Ethernet after all!). You may even get an additional benefit – your Ops and Engineering peers can support this type of equipment themselves.
In the meantime, I will be on the hunt to find & photograph what you SHOULD do. If you have a best practice in this area, I’d love to see any snapshots you’d be willing to share!