The use of Ethernet is spreading beyond traditional office-based IT and into areas such as manufacturing systems. Determinism had been a blocker to Ethernet-based production control, because IP's best-effort and packet-based nature made it unsuitable for real-time use.

That's changed now though. The advent of switched networks and the option for higher speeds, such as Gigabit, to cut latency and congestion on key network sections have bypassed the old objections. The mantra of 'Ethernet everywhere' is as true as it has ever been.

But the advent of industrial Ethernet isn't just about cutting the cost of factory networks, although that's how some have portrayed it. It also allows you to bring your factory networks together, instead of having isolated cells or multiple proprietary networks - and perhaps more importantly in the long run, it opens the door for manufacturing to connect directly into the ERP and other back office systems.

So argues Kevin Roach, vice president of manufacturing specialist Rockwell Software. He quotes figures from AMR Research, showing that manufacturing was the second largest proportion of IT spend after ERP in 2006, and predicting it will become number one this year. But he says that unless those two big areas are connected, companies will never realise the full benefit of either.

The factory connection

"You can't have factories as disconnected black boxes," he says. "I see fewer and fewer major manufacturing organisations that don't need the ability to see what's going on. If you can't, then reporting for regulatory compliance will be impossible, and trace-back for recalls will be impossible."

That means you need visibility, with information being gathered in real-time and fed into the business processes. More importantly, the business systems need to be able to act upon the information received.

"Today it's very fragmented - lots of information is still collected manually, with tracking entered into logbooks or Excel - that's prone to errors, costly, and it's not timely," Roach says. "So there is a big disconnect between aims and methods, and there is a need for systems to do real-time data collection, with dashboards and so on."

This is the background behind Rockwell's FactoryTalk software, he adds - not only does it control the factory, but it connects it into the business systems.

"We try not to talk about software, we talk about business processes and problems," he says. "For example, maybe the organisation has too much inventory because the paper processes aren't visible. You can't fix something that you can't see."

He adds: "Best-in-class companies do more monitoring, but just monitoring does nothing for you unless it's actionable - for example, to reschedule orders."

And after all, if you want up-to-date information on your production processes, where better to go than the systems in charge of them?

"The highest fidelity of data is in the production system, for example for predictive maintenance or capacity planning," Roach notes. "ERP deals with factories as black boxes, it doesn't know about line speeds, paint volumes, or whatever. So SAP doesn't know how far a production run has gone, but FactoryTalk does - plus it knows scrap rates and so on. Then FactoryTalk metrics can for example analyse scrap rates by materials, and so on."

Us and Them, or just Us?

This convergence also means that two groups which were historically separate, namely IT and production engineering have to work together much more closely - or perhaps even merge. That can be tough to organise in the face of vested interests, as Roach acknowledges.

"There is no magic formula to who owns it," he says. "10 years ago the two groups hated each other and each thought the other was idiots. But then automation happened and Ethernet started entering the plant, and then IT got a vote.

"Most successful examples have collaboration between IT and production engineering. IT has to get more involved - companies have to bring the two together. There is a tremendous amount of productivity to be gained, along with mass customisation, correlating suppliers of components across processes, and so on.

"The difficulty of collaboration varies greatly. Some have manufacturing owning the production IT, for others IT owns it, and others created a hybrid group. In any situation, what works is when you have cross-functional teams. The number-two thing is executive support. You've got to drive standards too and harmonise processes across the organisation.

"For IT, it's not so much a culture shock as a domain shock. It's learning new things. Manufacturing systems are mission-critical, there is no tolerance for downtime, so for IT it's understanding that."