Single Pair Ethernet, IIoT and the “Last Meter” Challenge 

With Industry 4.0, or the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), the benefits of intelligent, connected equipment have already been proven. However, in order for the full benefit of the Industrial Metaverse and the vision of seamless sensor to cloud Ethernet connectivity to be fully realized there are critical infrastructure challenges that must be addressed, and Single Pair Ethernet technology (SPE) is delivering the solutions.

Let’s consider the eco-system that the Metaverse and IIoT reside in. Suppose we think of the Metaverse as a digital twin of our physical world. In that case, it serves as a useful playground and test lab where engineers and product developers can test the impact of new designs, manufacturing strategies, logistics strategies and much more. It allows for the impact of the new product or strategy to be evaluated in great detail, helping inform stakeholders in their strategic decisions and direction and dramatically reducing the time and cost incurred from concept to implementation.

IIoT, on the other hand, functions in the “real world”, allowing for data to be collected in real-time and shared from machine to cell, to the entire MES and ERP systems to both record data and to drive productivity and efficiency to levels that were not possible prior to the advent of Ethernet technology and the internet.  Ideally, the Metaverse and IIoT do not operate in isolation of each other, but they inform one another.  AI models residing in the cloud influence some of the real-time decisions that are made on the factory floor, and at the same time, data coming from the factory floor further contributes to the refinement of AI models and digital twins aiding in the ongoing development of increasingly accurate digital models of the real world.

One could argue that one of the most critical areas of contribution to both IIoT and the digital and AI modeling that the Metaverse is comprised of is sensing technology. Sensors are the eyes, ears, and fingers, euphemistically speaking, that inform the control system when to actuate a command, the MES system when maintenance should be performed or process improvement is needed, inform the ERP system of productivity, and ultimately, the Metaverse, to a certain degree, of how accurate the functional models of the world are by feeding data into reports comparing expected results with actual results. Surprisingly, most sensors and actuators used in factory and process automation today do not reside directly on Ethernet networks, but on non-Ethernet based fieldbuses.

The Problems with Existing Industrial Networks 

In the world of logistics, there is increasing focus on addressing what is referred to as the “last mile delivery problem”. With rising expectations among consumers for next day delivery of goods through eCommerce, the “last mile” of the delivery process is considered to be the most critical to both customer satisfaction and to maintaining cost competitiveness. When considering a product’s journey from production plant, to warehouse, to delivery truck, to the customer’s door, it is the journey from the warehouse to the customer doorstep that is considered the “last mile.”  Last mile delivery can be impacted by proximity of deliveries to one another on a route, traffic and construction, weather, and the time and cost associated with this last step of the delivery process is quite substantial, estimated to be more than 50% of the total cost.

Industrial Ethernet networks, comparatively speaking, face a similar challenge when it comes to factory and process automation. TCP/IP based Ethernet technology is commonly used to connect the cloud, ERP, MES, production cell and machine level controls. However, at the sensor and actuator level of these systems, which reside at the very edge of the eco-system, many are still discreetly wired or connected to another fieldbus, which is then transmitted on Ethernet through a bridge or gateway. As a result, additional costs are incurred by the end-users through the need for additional programming and hardware to support these fieldbuses, and in some cases, it is an actual barrier to the implementation of smart technologies. For this reason, it can reasonably be stated that the Metaverse and IIoT have a “last meter” problem.

Single Pair Ethernet Saves the Day 

To help address these issues, the SPE Industrial Partner Network was formed in 2019. Now with more than 50 member companies—a veritable who’s who of cabling and connector suppliers—the mission of the consortium is to bring the industry together on a new networking standard. 

SPE stands for “Single Pair Ethernet.” As the name implies, the key innovation is a reduction in wiring—one twisted pair instead of two or four. The obvious benefit of this arrangement is a significant reduction in the weight and diameter of the cables, which are also notably more flexible for easier routing. But SPE also addresses the other major pain points for industrial networks: Bandwidth, power and reach. The technology supports speeds up to 1 Gbps up to 40M in length, and Power over Data Line (PoDL) up to 50 W on a single cable—more data and more power than preceding technologies on fewer wires. Even better, SPE supports cable runs at 10Mbps up to 1,000 m—ten times longer than Industrial Ethernet. What’s more, the electronics associated with the receptacle have been size-optimized, making it easier to

squeeze SPE ports into tight spaces. The reduced wire count supporting PoDL enables miniaturization of connectors which address what was one of the primary barriers to putting sensors onto Ethernet networks – the physical space limitations of the previous cable and connector technologies.  

The baseline cabling system, known as T1 SPE IP20, offers ruggedized features including IP20 protection rating, an operating temperature range of -40°C to +85°C, and durability for up to 1000 mating cycles. For even tougher environments, the M12 T1 SPE IP67 variant uses an IP67 rated connector designed by Molex.

A Roadmap to the Future 

Central to the entire premise of SPE is standardization. To avoid the balkanization that has occurred with earlier industrial networks, the 50+ members of the SPE Industrial Partner Network have committed to a standardized mating face under IEC 63171-6/-7. The consortium is also actively engaged with a wide range of standards committees including: 

  • IEEE 802.3 – Transmission method
  • IEC SC46C – Symmetrical copper cables
  • IEC SC 48B – Connectors
  • ISO/IEC JTC 1/SC 25/WG3 – Wiring
  • IEC SC65C – Industrial networks
  • ANSI/TIA TR-42 – Cabling systems

With this heavy focus on standardization, Single Pair Ethernet is on track to become the preferred network architecture for Industry 4.0 implementations. Industrial automation advancements across a multitude of functional areas will become far easier and more cost-effective to implement: devices, sensors and actuators can be easily integrated into an existing ethernet environment without additional interfaces.

It also allows the consolidation of fragmented legacy networks into a unified Ethernet-based solution, enabling better communication, faster response times and improved IT maintenance operations. 

This new offering can more seamlessly connect to a much larger choice of IoT infrastructure such as smart sensors, valves, actuators, drives, control panels and other process automation devices. Potential industry applications include building, plant and factory automation, machine-to-machine communication, lighting systems, elevator and escalator control and robotics.

As a premium member of the SPE Industrial Partner Network, Molex is proud to announce its initial SPE product line at SPS 2022 showcase in November. Molex’s SPE achieves data transmission speeds of up to 1 Gbps at 40 m cable distances, and future releases will support 10 Mbps at 1 km cable distances. Now with SPE, the future of the Industrial metaverse is looking brighter — and more viable– than it ever has before. 

Senior Manager, Business Development