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Time-sensitive networks bolster the promise of industrial IoT

Industrial companies that have successfully embraced IoT are now convinced of its benefits. Harley-Davidson’s smart factory saw an uptrend in profits by 4% and a reduction in build-to-order cycle by a factor of 36. Rolls-Royce, Toyota and Royal Dutch Shell are a few other examples of companies whose smart plants have realized the return on IoT investment within months through improved efficiencies.

Insights from IoT-sensor-generated data have helped industrial companies optimize asset performance, detect anomalies and predict repairs to significantly reduce downtime. Manufacturers are also realizing new revenue streams with subscription-based services on the products they sell.

However, that’s only a fraction of what industrial IoT can really offer to manufacturers. Time-sensitive networks (TSN), an emerging IIoT connectivity paradigm, extend the promise of IoT well beyond predictive maintenance into the core of industrial control and actuation systems. Being a Layer 2 technology, TSN helps enterprises to establish a solid digital footprint for IoT-enabled services and to position themselves for higher returns.

If we take the example of any smart factory, IoT-sensor data from the field and factory floors include both control as well as telemetry/diagnostics information. Today, IoT applications are mainly designed to gain insights from this telemetry and diagnostics data. The problem is, due to tight control loops, this data must be acted upon immediately (typically within sub-millisecond response windows).

Besides, every industrial use case (think of an oil and gas drilling rig versus a jet engine plant) has its unique timing requirements. Open IP/Ethernet standards were never designed for these time-sensitive and highly deterministic control loops.

To deal with the control and actuation functions, enterprises still rely on propriety fieldbus protocols and simply can’t afford to move away from using those, thus extending their dependency on age-old legacy systems and fragmented networks. This predicament is further highlighted in the excerpt below from Practical Industrial Internet of Things Security:

IEEE 802.1 Ethernet, although a widely deployed low-cost Layer 2 technology, fails to match the deterministic performance requirements of industrial automation and control applications. To achieve deterministic performance, most industrial enterprises still continue to use fieldbus technologies and their proprietary enhancements to Ethernet, such as EtherCat, Profinet or Sercos III. These proprietary protocols are not built for security and interoperability. The result has been fragmented industrial networks that are incapable of integrating with advanced analytics services of the industrial internet and Industrie 4.0.

TSN, an evolution to the IEEE 802.1 Ethernet standard, addresses this problem head-on. It’s time synchronization and traffic scheduling capabilities are designed to cater to highly deterministic and tight control loops. Both early adopters and enterprises that are new to IoT can use TSN to upgrade legacy operational technology (OT) infrastructure with open standards-based IP/Ethernet technologies. This translates to efficiencies from IT/OT convergence across the entire organization for better productivity and innovations.

It’s also worthwhile to note that TSN is not simply about upgrading industrial operations with standard-based technologies for greater efficiencies. TSN utilizes a software-defined networking concept for the automated setup and configuration of devices and network equipment (defined in IEEE 802.1Qcc). Thus, TSN-enabled infrastructure can also use the power of intelligent, software-defined capabilities all across an enterprise’s digital fabric. Last but not least, TSN can help migrate away from fieldbus technologies which were never designed with security in mind, and thus make industrial IoT more secure.

As an emerging innovation, much of TSN’s promise is still hidden behind incubation testbeds and proofs of concept. However, it may not be too far in the future before we start seeing its mass adoption.

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