Can High-Speed Fiber Optics Link Smart Factories?

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A fiber-optic network can link far-flung manufacturing operations. Use cases include production optimization and supply-chain management.

High-speed networking within a manufacturing plant, purpose-built to enable machine-to-machine (M2M) communications and real-time monitoring, is nothing particularly new. Advanced manufacturing and the need to monitor active systems engendered high-speed networks, but the need for big data is pushing requirements to new heights. In addition, manufacturers are hoping to network not only a single facility, but rather all their oftentimes disparate production sites. This necessitates an entirely new brand of long-distance, high-speed networking.

A new high-speed networking testbed from the Industrial Internet Consortium (IIC), in partnership with GE, Cisco, Accenture, and Bayshore Networks, has produced new fiber optic technology capable of 100-gigabit per second speeds. Considering that existing fiber optic networking technology tops out at roughly the same bandwidth, this might not seem all that innovative—until one considers that it’s being used to connect machines and facilities across the entire continental U.S.

GE Global Research is monitoring data originating from California, in real-time, at its research facility in Niskayuna, New York. If the technology behind this testbed is proven, more companies are likely to intimately connect their disparately-located facilities to enable better business decisions. These companies could realize massive efficiencies and reduce costs dramatically if, for example, they could respond to a major production breakdown at one facility by ramping up production at another, or being able to divert inventory depending on real-time needs.

How 100-gigabit M2M is possible

fiber optic cableBayshore Networks says the testbed uses its IT/OT Gateway filters to transform power generator data into standard analytics formats so that it can integrate with third-party analytics—in this case, Accenture’s Insights Platform. The gateways are responsible for securing the data in motion, and feeding it into the analytics platform.

In a press release, Colin Parris, the vice president of GE Software Research says, “These high-speed networking lines enable accelerated data movement and an increase in data volumes within Industrial Internet products and services. This ability will greatly accelerate needed advancements in these areas, and in collaboration with the Industrial Internet Consortium, help advance industry standards.”

As IIC says, these kinds of data transfer speeds are equivalent to downloading some 6,000 movies at a time. More than enough bandwidth for some sophisticated big data analysis.

High-speed manufacturing networks unlock innovations

Even better is that a certain degree of wireless technology is being incorportaed into this industrial internet testbed, which will allow GE and other companies to help deliver data to mobile users, or help an engineer out in the field relay information back to a central location more easily—and quickly.

GE is already using this technology to make its factories “brilliant,” according to its press release. For a factory to be deemed “brilliant” by GE, it must be observable and controllable, in real-time and with full visibility, from a remote location. The company is aiming to roll out the network to its 400 manufacturing facilities in the near future.

GE isn’t the only company working diligently to create innovative IoT and M2M technology for the next generation of manufacturing. Manufacturers are well aware that continuous monitoring of critical production assets increases the capacity to forecast maintenance or react to supply chain delays (See: “Always-On Analytics for Always-On Manufacturing.”).

While these networks are most certainly an inevitability for high-technology manufacturing outfits, the question that remains is how long they will be able to keep up with the ever-increasing demand for more data.

More on this topic:

Case studies: Predictive maintenance

Asset performance, production optimization

IIC testbeds

Joel Hans

About Joel Hans

Joel Hans is the former managing editor of Manufacturing.net. He earned his master's degree from the University of Arizona, and currently lives and writes in Tucson.

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