IT in Manufacturing

Industrial Ethernet switches reflect ongoing evolution at the IIoT ‘thin edge’

January 2020 IT in Manufacturing

Today’s digital transformation strategies require data connectivity throughout the architecture to fulfil the quest for improved operations. These requirements necessitate extracting meaningful data from devices, assets and processes. This is needed not only to automate processes, but also to provide input from ancillary functions such as energy management, environmental monitoring, and related performance variables with the potential to generate operating improvements. In the machine building realm, OEMs increasingly leverage industrial Ethernet capabilities to add value, differentiate offerings, gain competitive advantage, and meet customer requirements related to Industry 4.0 and the IIoT.

While 5G networks offer tremendous future potential, industrial Ethernet wireline networks are the current technology of choice to achieve connectivity in both industrial and infrastructure applications. Ethernet’s advantages in core performance areas, such as speed, bandwidth, and capacity remain compelling relative to legacy fieldbus and most existing wireless alternatives.

Continued advancements in Ethernet technology expand its reach and capabilities. Some of the most important developments include faster speeds, higher bandwidth, higher wattage PoE (Power over Ethernet), and the prospect of standard real-time deterministic Ethernet.

Serving the thin edge of IIoT architectures

Digital transformation strategies have evolved from cloud-centric architectures to those that increasingly rely on the industrial edge. Customers look to the edge to address shortcomings of cloud-centric strategies in areas such as latency, bandwidth, OT protocol support and security. This leads to strategies that emphasise “edge where you can; cloud where you must.”

The edge concept itself is evolving in response to refined edge-to-cloud relationships, including ongoing tiering into a connectivity-centric ‘thin edge’ vs. a compute-and-store-oriented ‘thick edge’, characterised by greater capability inherent in products such as industrial edge servers.

ARC anticipates industrial Ethernet switches (IES) to remain firmly rooted in their connectivity role at the thin edge of this emerging multi-tiered stack, with continued reliance on gateways, routers, and thick edge devices for edge-to-cloud integration and edge computing. This is reflected in the strategies of most leading IES suppliers, many of whom rely on thick edge devices for edge-to-cloud integration. Market share leader Cisco is an exception, with the company’s IOx edge compute platform supported in its IE 4000 switches and throughout its network infrastructure portfolio.

Ongoing evolution at the network infrastructure tier

The thin edge or connectivity tier is undergoing profound change due to continuing technology evolution and standardisation. This is true regarding not only the expanding number of available devices that meet industry-specific requirements in segments, such as transportation (EN50155), electric power T&D; (IEC 61850-3), and surveillance (PoE); but also in technology areas such as Gigabit Ethernet, Time-Sensitive Networks (TSN), IIoT, and network management, among others.

Continued advancements in Ethernet technology expand the reach and capabilities of industrial Ethernet architectures. Speed and bandwidth continue to increase, and suppliers are responding by introducing switches supporting GB, 2.5 GB, and 10 GB speeds. PoE standards, important for powering edge devices ranging from wireless access points to video cameras used in surveillance applications, are similarly evolving, with devices supporting the new 90-watt IEEE 802.3bt standard ratified in 2018, already becoming available.

IEEE 802.1 TSN with or without OPC UA

IEEE 802.1 TSN and the associated joint IEC/IEEE 60802 TSN Profile for Industrial Automation have the potential to deliver a common real-time industrial Ethernet at the lower layers of the network hierarchy. This would eliminate the need for proprietary implementations to enable deterministic performance in even the most demanding applications. These developments have the potential to overcome decades of fragmented proprietary technologies, but could face their own challenges with complexity and interoperability due to differing vendor implementations of the multi-part standard.

Industry efforts are under way to extend the possibility of a unified industrial network stack by combining the OPC UA publish-subscribe specification with TSN. The ‘Shapers Group’ within the OPC Foundation is a primary force behind this effort, whose ultimate impact is expected to take longer than TSN implementation. Readers interested in further information on IEEE 802.1 TSN as well as the efforts to combine it with OPC UA pub-sub are encouraged to reference the extensive coverage on ARC’s website.

Enabling further process decentralisation

Ongoing addition of incremental industrial Ethernet capabilities will enable organisations to pursue decentralised, even autonomous, operation by distributing communication away from central processors. This will enable more direct communication between machines capable of controlling their own logic and initiating subsequent process steps. Availability of redundancy mechanisms, such as DLR (device level ring), MRP (media redundant protocol, PRP (parallel redundancy protocol), and HSR (high-availability seamless redundancy) in managed switches furthers this possibility.

For more information contact Paul Miller, ARC Advisory Group, +1 781 471 1141,,

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