Machine networks made easy

The extensive product portfolio of Phoenix Contact encompasses all components needed for setting up a machine network.

Phoenix Contact’s national marketing manager, John Ortika, shares the company’s approach about their idea of future-oriented communication.

Seamless ethernet-based data exchange from field level to office applications is one of the central challenges that Industry 4.0 presents to future machine networks. As communication specialists, Phoenix Contact provides solutions that are not only comprehensive, but also easy to handle, secure and future ready.

Whether man or machine, one thing is certain: without communication, nothing works. However, in the practice, it frequently happens that participants do not understand each other, or not correctly. Reasons include many participants speaking at once, different languages or complex ways of expressing themselves. It is a fact that misunderstandings can easily cause errors with unforeseeable consequences. Therefore, a uniform language and regulated communication are fundamental prerequisites for trouble-free information exchange between all participants. And that also holds true for the data exchange in machines and systems.

In the past, the amount of Ethernet-capable components was still relatively limited, but thanks to the universal Ethernet communication, their number is continuously increasing. As a result, the risk of unwanted data traffic on the network also increases. Unauthorised devices that are connected or loops that are accidentally established can interfere with the production process.

If the user then additionally needs special protocols, such as PROFINET or EtherNet/IP, the devices used have to fulfill special requirements to safeguard reliable data exchange. Technology trends such as cloud-based solutions, IT security, the use of smart devices or the possibility of secure remote maintenance also influence the network communication. For the machine builders, this means that they constantly have to plan and service larger networks that can be supplemented with new technologies.

The extensive product portfolio of Phoenix Contact encompasses all components needed for setting up a machine network.

And all of that has to stay manageable for both their and the customers’ employees.

“PROFINET or Ethernet/IP protocols will have different requirements for how they might find errors and transmit information deterministically. So, if you just bought a switch off the shelf that did not cater for a certain protocol, then you would be blocking the efficiency of the protocol and cause the system to not operate very well,” said John Ortika, national manager, Phoenix Contact Australia.

He explained that because there’s different ways these protocols send the data out, then normal ethernet switches that don’t have the matching protocol in mind when set up, may impact the flow of the production data rather than allowing it to go through as the highest priority.

Uniform control philosophy

To meet these demands, new device types are used in the machine networks, in addition to switches that connect the components and control the data transmission. For example, to connect mobile end devices or transport systems to the automation network, wireless modules are used. Security components are increasingly used to ensure safe integration of the machines into the production network. Additionally, they allow encrypted – and thus secure – remote access to the machines. In machine building, the pressure to be competitive on the global market is high.

To answer the customers’ demand for devices that are easy to handle, it makes sense to source all the required network components from a single manufacturer. This allows a uniform control philosophy and creates leeway for price negotiations. With the FL Switch 2000, FL WLAN 1100, FL mGuard und TC Cloud Client product families, communication specialist Phoenix Contact therefore provides the optimal solution for the special requirements of modern machine.

Diagnosable high-availability networks
In the past, unmanaged switches usually served as the interface between the network participants in machine building. The reasons included their low price and easy startup. However, these devices cannot meet the demands that arise from the growing communication needs of the constantly increasing number of network participants.

For example, unmanaged switches have no mechanisms for network diagnostics or reducing the data load. Therefore they can only be used in modern machine networks to a limited extent.

On the other hand, intelligent switches have precisely these functions. Thanks to optimally matched functionality, they combine the advantages of the easy operation of unmanaged devices with the powerful capabilities of the managed switches. The new FL Switch 2000 product family of Phoenix Contact additionally supports redundancy mechanisms for loop suppression, as well the essential functions of the PROFINET and EtherNet/IP transmission standards. The innovative Unmanaged Mode ensures user-friendly handling. It allows the device to be operated as unmanaged switch, while management functions for stabilising the network are active in the background. With the FL Switch 2100 models, it is additionally possible to set up machine networks for gigabit communication.

The compact FL WLAN 1100 wireless module/access point can be used to integrate mobile devices into the network.
The compact FL WLAN 1100 wireless module/access point can be used to integrate mobile devices into the network.

Reliable wireless technology

The trend to integrate mobile devices and driverless transport systems into the machine network makes wireless data communication essential, for example using WLAN. To ensure that the data is reliably transmitted to the receiver, an access point that sends out a WLAN signal should be installed at the respective machines. Usually, the access point is installed in the control cabinet and at least two antennas are mounted on the machine.

With the FL WLAN 1100 product family, Phoenix Contact has created an easy solution for full WLAN reception at machines and systems. The wireless module not only unites an access point and antennas in one device, but, with a little work and using a single- hole mounting method, can also be installed directly on the machine, on the control cabinet or on a mobile vehicle – even as retrofit. The two antennas integrated into the access point support all customary WLAN standards (IEC 802.11a/b/g/n) and frequencies (2.4 GHz and 5 GHz), as well as the MIMO antenna technology (Multiple Input Multiple Output). This ensures fast and reliable data transmission.

Secure remote access

Connecting the machine to the production network, integration into a cloud-based solution or remote maintenance by the machine builder: regardless of the application, secure and therefore encrypted communication is crucial. The remote maintenance modules of the TC Cloud Client and FL mGuard product families make it possible for service personnel to remotely connect to the machines and systems via the Internet. Depending on what is needed, this connection is either established via the operator’s networks, or via the global 4G LTE mobile network.

The mGuard Secure Cloud makes it possible to set up a scaleable VPN infrastructure with encryption by means of the IPsec security protocol. This safeguards the confidentiality, authenticity and integrity of all exchanged data. For secure connections between the machine and the production network, the FL mGuard security appliances additionally provide extensive firewall functions that protect the machine network against unauthorised access.

“For machines, remote access is often discussed especially if the machine is being leased by an external vendor. So, if access to the network by the external leasing company is needed, that access needs to be secure. The last thing you need is unauthorised access through some backdoor to introduced unwanted elements into your network,” explained Ortika.

Easy configuration

Many machine builders prefer using devices that are easy to operate in their networks. To avoid the additional time and costs involved in configuring more complex components, the machine builders make conscious decisions to forfeit the advantages of a robust, diagnosable network. As  mentioned above, unmanaged switches with plug-and-play capabilities are frequently used. These simply have to be connected to a power supply and the network. No settings have to be configured.

To minimise the configuration work needed for components with management functions, without forfeiting the many benefits they offer, the new devices of Phoenix Contact have been optimised for machine building applications and are easy to configure. In addition to the configuration options usually offered, such as web-based management in a browser and SNMP (Simple Network Management Protocol), the switches of the 2000 product family and the TC Cloud Client are equipped with an SD card. With the card, the configurations created can be replicated as often as needed. And if the user needs to replace a defective component, the extensive work involved in the initial configuration need not be repeated for the replacement device. The wireless modules of the FL WLAN 1100 and FL Switch 2000 product families additionally offer the option of configuration by means of a command- line interface (CLI).

Transparent network management
Larger and larger automation networks – this trend is overtaxing an increasing number of machine builders’ ability to manage their networks. Additionally, they complain about the high amount of time needed and the resulting costs. Therefore many companies are looking for a solution that simplifies network management. With the FL Network Manager, Phoenix Contact offers a new software tool that encompasses all important functions for managing switches, as well as WLAN and security components – from the first device configuration and monitoring functions during live operation to user- friendly configuration and firmware management.

In the past, it was necessary to perform firmware updates on each individual device. With the FL Network Manager, it is now possible to update all components simultaneously. The device configuration in the network is just as easy. All configuration files can be saved locally with a single step, to then be loaded onto a (replacement) device when needed. Integrated BootP/DHCP and TFTP server functions eliminate the need to use several different tools to configure the device parameters. The FL Network Manager thus unites all important management functions for an automation network into a transparent tool.

Moving the customer to a newer platform
Within the manufacturing space, there is still a need to educate customers on the benefits of having reliable protocols for smooth data transfer. Ortika told Manufacturers’ Monthly that Phoenix Contact believes in advice to what they are transitioning into with a new set up.

“What has happened in the past is a customer has put in an Ethernet network that had motors or sensors on Profinet or Ethernet IP. However due to using unmanaged switches on not correctly configured managed switches, they get into difficulty within their systems and wonder where they went wrong. In reality, the real problem is the switches were not set up correctly or able to provide information that could help speed up troubleshooting and hence resulted in longer than expected downtimes ” said Ortika.

The fact of the matter, he explained, is that the switch is an important part of the network and many issues could be avoided if the customer had a proper understanding of what PROFINET or Ethernet IP required.

Moving forward, Ortika mentioned that the managed switches come with an inbuilt diagnostics system that helps to troubleshoot any issues that may happen along the way. “Should a customer still need technical support with the diagnostics, Phoenix Contact does provide support in interpretating that information,” said Ortika.

“Customers can also expect firmware updates with more features being added as they go along in order to accommodate more complex management of data flow,” said Ortika.