Navigating the Alphabet Soup of Communication Protocols to Confidently Evolve to Industry 4.0

Industrial automation is undergoing something of a sea-change, with Industry 4.0 promising a new generation of communications technology capable of gathering and processing data at speeds close to real time. The virtually instant availability of this data drives the formation of a new ecosystem of ultra-efficient, highly connected and intelligent manufacturing. Set against a proliferation and legacy of both established and associated industry communications protocols, Industry 4.0 could appear as a threat to traditional industrial automation systems, such as some older versions of fieldbus. So, what barriers might stand in the way of a seamless Industry 4.0 future?

Perhaps inevitably, a period of transition in any scenario involves some natural element of psychological hesitancy. For Industry 4.0, a number of interplaying factors potentially exacerbate this, not least of which is an industrial landscape somewhat historically dominated by two ecosystems, similar to closed versus open source smartphones. Taking this analogy a step further, the more ‘open’ nature of open source versus closed proprietary systems is akin to the industrial automation reality that exists around several communications ‘languages.’ An Industry 4.0 future which operates seamlessly, regardless of a company’s existing communications language loyalty, is arguably the vision for openness that underpins a full realization of Industry 4.0.

Findings from the recent State of Industry 4.0 Survey conducted by Molex, in collaboration with third-party research firm, Dimensional Research, largely conclude that, although some progress has been made, the original vision for Industry 4.0 remaking the manufacturing landscape, with fully automated end-to-end manufacturing generating revenue in the billions of dollars range, is yet to be materialized. The survey examined whether there is a fundamental flaw in the business case for industrial automation and looked at what the main barriers might be.

Survey respondents expressed that “existing communication protocols are too restricted,” while 39% thought that current remote access is too limited. But then, 36% thought traditional solutions are adequate for current needs. There was clearly frustration with communications protocols, and in particular remote access, with vast variation in responses indicating clear hurdles to technology adoption as well as a stand-off of sorts between IT and OT.

Close collaboration vital
Having faced the very real challenge of guiding customers through an alphabet soup of options, Molex has found that there is a clear need for close collaboration. In practice, we find that the biggest roadblocks are related to specific longstanding automation systems. Their infrastructure-related support systems, and even management of these systems, are all established for many years, as are the profitable business models that have been built around the systems. The problem today is that remote access can be seen as a threat to these models. And in reality, there are many industrial scenarios where human physical intervention is still required, which means that it’s highly likely that a purely remote-managed operation is still several years away.

For example, in the field of automotive automation, the majority of technical updates required for each of today’s car models are in firmware and software. These can be delivered remotely, but transitioning to the process that enables a remote access model actually slows the speed of adoption.

The shop floor itself represents a similar situation, in terms of communication, with as many as eight different languages being used across machines. Digital languages such as Profinet and EtherNet/IP vie with legacy options, including DeviceNet and Profibus. A key industry challenge centers around today’s new plants being built to continue use of legacy communication technologies.

When the industry adopted later-generation Ethernet-based protocols, such as EtherNet I/P, it was assumed it would result in great connections to the Enterprise, due to Ethernet connections delivering marked benefits in speed and the ability to connect more devices. But the collective industry failed to see that, for various reasons, Ethernet would be more costly at the service level. The situation we see today is a puzzling picture of who uses which technology when, and the confusion of how to effectively connect the array of protocols. How do we get to the point where we do not worry about the language but instead focus on the data?

The need for agnosticism
Recognizing this challenging situation, Molex responds to its customers with technical agnosticism. This Molex core value has helped us guide the industry in the deployment of functionally-safe messaging regardless of the protocol, the device, and what other devices are on the network. “Functional safety” means that any device, from any manufacturer, is capable of safe networking. Both safe and unsafe I/O messages are consolidated on the same device and wire, so there is no requirement for separate devices.

Practical agnosticism means being able to supply organizations with the functionally-safe technologies they require and request. For example, as a provider of Profinet technology, Molex plays a key role in advancing Industry 4.0, by providing engineering development and technical support through the Molex Competence Center, and actively involving engineers in the Profinet specification process.

Likewise, Ethernet’s latest iteration, Single-Pair Ethernet (SPE), is a conscious attempt at establishing a standard that’s aimed at promoting the growth of the IIoT and Industry 4.0. Leading the charge is the Single Pair Ethernet Industrial Partner Network — of which Molex is a longstanding member.

A second benefit of agnosticism, however, is the freedom NOT to use specific protocols, but rather to provide a layer that allows communication between protocols. This results in true, built-in efficiencies that justify and drive investment.

To effect change on a global scale, large manufacturers must play a key role in influencing the Industry 4.0 future, and in shaping the technological playing field in conjunction with agnostic suppliers such as Molex. There exists a real and understandable need and desire for a technologically agnostic approach, where any device may be deployed on any network yet may be configured in an open environment. Optimistically, we are starting to see more cases where applications advantages are starting to trump account ownership, softening historic biases towards certain communications protocols.

The Industry 4.0 goal
The first step toward implementing an agnostic approach to industrial automation communications protocols and systems involves ‘agitating’ relatively deep-seated cultural stances. The next steps then need to tackle several hurdles, from possibly spanning global borders, to defining and refining remote access to establishing new training procedures and business models. The paramount need that guides us, as we move across any number of automated segments along the Industry 4.0 learning curve, is a positive, engaged, long-term relationship with the customer. These use cases represent no better embodiment of the Molex brand promise ‘Creating Connections for Life’ as we drive continued collaboration that sets the customer on a smooth path toward the Industry 4.0 end goal.

Global Business Development Manager