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Why It's Time for Manufacturers to Unplug the Unmanaged Switch

Putting managed switches into the industrial environment is an age-old hurdle, but it’s worth overcoming now more than ever thanks to data analytics.

October 18, 2016

I can’t help but ask manufacturers why they still allow integrators to dictate their switches, usually unmanaged, in industrial solutions.

Integrators primarily use unmanaged switches to cut the cost of a project at hand, as unmanaged switches are cheaper than managed ones. Integrators have technical people who know how to install unmanaged switches, and they know unmanaged switches will work for a particular solution.

Unmanaged switches also can be a source of future business for the integrator. Often customers are reliant on integrators to troubleshoot issues with the industrial solutions the integrator implemented and the limited visibility and management of unmanaged switches increase that reliance.

I argue that the additional cost paid to an integrator to complete compatibility testing on a customer chosen managed switch based off standards defined by the customer is well worth it in the long run.

Not only are there the traditional benefits of managed switches that we’ve seen argued for years, but the real benefit of managed switches is that they allow manufacturers to extract data from the edge of the industrial network.

Managed switches and data analytics

Managed switches are one of the components of the connected factory. The connected factory is the base architecture that enables manufacturer’s to extract real-time data from the manufacturing floor that can be analyzed to create actionable tasks for manufacturing personnel. Since the data is in real time, the tasks created can positively impact production by correcting issues quickly.

For instance, with managed switching and the visibility they provide, a sensor within your architecture could provide vibration information on a particular process area. When the vibration reaches a certain threshold, it alerts the operator on his or her phone. The operator goes to the alerted area, is able to evaluate the situation and correct the issue. If the vibration would have continued it could have caused possible downtime for the machine center, as well as defective/scrap product, which can snowball into potential recalls or brand reputation issues.

How to start making the switch

So how do you get to this ideal state where engineers are completing tasks based on real-time data in a production environment?

First, you need to hold your integrators to industrial networking architecture standards for a managed switching environment that you’ve established.

If you don’t have standards already established in your environment, I suggest reading Cisco and Rockwell’s joint architecture design guide, Converged Plantwide Ethernet, as a start. Then, I would involve industrial IT engineering talent that knows the needs of the production environment, but also understands the network technologies that support both the production environment and the corporate IT environment. This will ensure your architecture standards fit your needs.

Once your network is designed and deployed correctly, you can then collect critical data, analyze it and create visualization tools that can provide staff with actionable, business-relevant tasks.

I suggest thinking twice before you continue adding unmanaged switches into your environment.

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