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Industrial Networks Provide Answers for the Office IT Space

 Many articles have been published discussing how to move IT onto the plant floor. But let’s turn it around: what happens when industrial equipment moves into the office IT world?

Yes, such a thing does happen, particularly in the pharmaceutical industry when R&D test labs are located in office campuses rather than manufacturing plants. These labs tend to be small, but they require like instrumentation as their big siblings. So, how do technicians design solutions where it is necessary to capture data from a pressure or temperature transmitter when working with networks that don’t understand the word “analog?” This challenge is the main topic of my article in the October 2019 issue of Pharma Manufacturing, Matching Industrial Networks to Hardware.

Building a device-level network to communicate with a variety of field instruments in low-density, non-industrial environments can be more challenging than automating a large refinery or chemical plant. Trying to perform the task using what is effectively office IT network technology is difficult considering factors such as the layout of the space, required operational flexibility and a lack of necessary tools. For effective data collection, process instrumentation needs industrial networks.

That sounds correct, but few locations are interested in installing new wired infrastructure of any kind, it’s just too expensive. So they try to make the industrial equipment communicate via the business LAN that’s already in place. This can work, sort of.

A common practice is to deploy a remote I/O station in every lab, each capable of supporting the variety of field instruments connected to it. IT administrators often set these up in a virtual LAN within the office system with fixed IP addresses along with a floating domain name system. Where processes need external control, the network includes a process automation host system. This approach can work, but because the basic infrastructure is not designed for industrial applications, it may result in several reoccurring issues, as many of Emerson’s pharmaceutical clients have observed.

So what are the problems? The article discusses several but here are two: instruments and small controllers don’t respond well to the work that IT folks do on those networks, such as installing patches. Instrument techs also find many of their best tools for calibration and other common instruments don’t work in those environments. These problems can be solved with the use of an industrial network that doesn’t call for expensive new infrastructure: WirelessHART.

WirelessHART is the most widely deployed device-level networking protocol with dozens of compatible devices available from a wide range of manufacturers. The wireless field devices have self-contained power modules and communicate with one another and the gateway. The gateway then provides a hardwired connection to the automation host system, asset management, monitoring and/or data analytics environment. Data from the field devices moves to the gateway, which is normally connected to the larger corporate IT network infrastructure via a wired Ethernet connection. The data can then be securely accessed anywhere, ranging from an individual production unit’s host system all the way to a cloud environment. 

That statement covers a lot of ground, but it’s true. Wireless transmitters such as Emerson’s Rosemount 3051S Wireless Coplanar Pressure Transmitter and Rosemount 648 Wireless Temperature Transmitter are a great solution for pharmaceutical applications. WirelessHART will work effectively in all kinds of office IT environments.

Radio propagation in typical R&D buildings is very effective and is much like Wi-Fi. If Wi-Fi networks work well, WirelessHART will also. It has a strong ability to penetrate through floors and walls, and coverage can be verified using standard network diagnostic tools to measure signal strength and indicate how mesh networks form. WirelessHART gateways can be installed as needed throughout the facility to provide 100 percent coverage and deliver instrumentation data directly to host systems, avoiding problems introduced by office IT networks.

So sometimes industrial practices have to move into the office, and it’s nice to know WirelessHART works just as well there as on the plant floor or in the field. You can find more information like this and meet with other people looking at the same kinds of situations at Emerson Exchange and in the Emerson Exchange365 community. It’s a place where you can communicate and exchange information with experts and peers in all sorts of industries around the world. Look for the Life Sciences Group, and other specialty areas for suggestions and answers.