Ensuring robust connectivity in the Industrial Internet of Things

The industrial Internet of Things promises to bring greater visibility and control of manufacturing processes. To achieve its potential, however, industrial data networks need robust interconnect solutions able to maintain robust connectivity despite the harsh conditions found in manufacturing facilities. With the availability of comprehensive M8/M12 interconnect systems, manufacturers can confidently deploy next-generation industrial applications built on fully reliable, highly flexible connectivity.

The Internet of Things (IoT) looks to quantify significant factors that affect humans and their machines. Analysts forecast that before the end of this decade, tens of billions of IoT devices will be performing measurements of basic physical quantities such as temperature, pressure, and acceleration as well as tracking more complex human physiological quantities such as heart rate, blood pressure, blood glucose levels, and more.

Industrial Impact

The consumer Internet of Things (IoT) continues to garner the greater share of popular attention for its potential impact on individuals. Yet, industrial IoT (IIoT) stands to exert more profound effects on society as a whole. According to Oxford Economics, the IIoT is poised to affect industries representing 62 percent of gross domestic product in the top 20 world economies. With its ability to enhance industrial capabilities, the IIoT is poised for rapid growth among all IoT segments (Figure 1). In manufacturing in particular, the IIoT promises dramatic advantages -- but also faces some of its greatest challenges.

Figure 1. Forecast to account for the dominant share of the IoT, the Industrial Internet of Things promises to significantly impact world economies. (Source: IHS/electronics360)

The IIoT is based on pervasive, detailed monitoring of virtually every factor that influences the quality and efficiency of an industrial process. With ongoing advances in technologies such as microelectromechanical systems (MEMS), IIoT sensors continue to shrink in size and cost while improving in performance and sophistication -- further fueling opportunities for innovative IIoT applications.

Already, companies are installing these devices in a growing array of industrial applications. For example, KUKA Systems Group relies on the IIoT in its automated manufacturing plant to produce bodies for multiple models of the Jeep Wrangler line. The IIoT backbone of this facility connects 259 assembly-line industrial robots and 60,000 devices on the shop floor to backend monitoring and management systems.

This combination of operational visibility and manufacturing control allows KUKA to rapidly adapt to diverse work orders and shift easily to production of bodies for different vehicle models. Thanks to this comprehensive visibility into plant operations, the facility has been able to run non-stop, 24 hours/day, producing a car body every 77 seconds.

As analysts suggest with their dramatic growth predictions, large-scale IIoT device deployments such as KUKA's will become more common across highly competitive industries. The payoff in these deployments arises from deep analysis of data streams to find specific events of interest as well as broad indicators of trends that predict equipment failure, overall manufacturing efficiency, and the like. Ultimately, these IIoT applications offer manufacturers a powerful solution for achieving rapid, high-quality, cost-effective production of increasingly diverse product types required for success in fast-changing competitive markets.

IIoT Connectivity Challenges

Placed on equipment and positioned throughout the manufacturing space, sensors provide the vital data needed to feed analytical engines on the back end. In the factory, however, maintaining reliable connections can be a significant challenge in itself. Reliability becomes even more difficult for monitoring applications that require higher bandwidth for video or very high-speed, high-resolution sensor signal acquisition.

M8/M12 interconnect systems such as TE Connectivity's are specifically geared to maintain reliable, high-speed connectivity despite rough treatment and constant exposure to heat, dust and moisture.  Designed to work across the full -40 to 85°C industrial temperature range, these components are built for strength and endurance. Robust M8/M12 components reliably maintain connection through hundreds of make-break cycles despite continuous vibration and exposure to the harsh conditions of industrial environments.

These circular screw-type connectors feature a protective shell designed to structurally shield the contacts from mechanical stress or contaminants that could short, obstruct or damage contact pins and sockets. In fact, TE Connectivity's M8/M12 interconnect is rated at IP67 -- an IEC 60529 standard rating that indicates dust-tight protection and an ability to withstand wash- downs and partial immersion in water. Along with their robust structural integrity, these components are designed to maintain signal integrity. Shielded versions of TE Connectivity's M8/M12 help mitigate EMI effects and further maintain signal integrity in electrically noisy factory environments.

Developed to provide reliable interconnect for industrial sensors, 3- and 4-pin M8/M12 connectors were originally used to provide a rugged separable interface on the sensor end of a cable that was wired directly into I/O panels in early industrial applications. With the emergence and widespread acceptance of industrial control networks, industrial automation architects gained additional options for tying sensors into factory automation systems. Today, M8/M12 interconnect links industrial sensors and actuators into systems using specialized industrial protocols such as IO Link for point-to-point serial communications; Interbus for serial bus communications; and DeviceNet or Profibus for industrial network communications, among others.

Standard pin configurations, or codings, help ensure that installers complete connections only with similarly coded connectors (Figure 2). Specified in international standard IEC 61076-2-104 (M8) and IEC 61076-2-101 (M12), these standard codings are typically associated with specific communications protocols. For example, A-coding is used for sensor-actuator connections using DeviceNet, IO link and Profibus, while B-coded connectors are used for Profibus and Interbus.

Figure 2. Standard codings present different configurations that help avoid mismatched connections, for example, preventing a cable intended for IO Link (A-coding) from connecting to Interbus (B-coding). (Source: TE Connectivity)

Connecting Smart Sensors

Unlike earlier discrete industrial sensors, emerging IIoT sensors are highly integrated systems that take advantage of advanced semiconductor process technologies. Using standard fabrication methods, semiconductor vendors are able to combine sensors, analog-signal processing circuitry and processors on a single system-on-chip (SoC) device. Consequently, these smart sensors offer much more than simple measurement, using their on-chip capabilities to perform both data collection and sophisticated data analysis.

Where earlier sensors simply fed raw data through serial connections or specialized industrial-automation networks, smart sensors are complete systems capable of working autonomously and independently interacting with hosts, gateways or even other smart sensors. In non-industrial IoT applications, smart IoT sensors typically serve as peers on conventional Ethernet-based local-area networks, using familiar TCP/IP protocols to communicate with local resources and the cloud.

Ethernet-based networks including Industrial Ethernet, Profinet, Ethernet/IP and EtherCat already play a key role in industrial automation. In fact, 4-pin M8/M12 interconnect systems already support these networking protocols at rates up to 100 Mbps with standard D-coded connectors (Figure 3a).

Figure 3. M8/M12 D-coded interconnect and X-coded interconnect offer robust connectivity for 100 Mbps and 1 Gbps Ethernet-based industrial networks, respectively. (Source: TE Connectivity)

As manufacturers rely increasingly on vision systems and high-speed data acquisition, however, existing 4-pin D-coded M8/M12 connectors are simply unable to support the gigabit data rates often required for these types of sensors. Although a standard 100BASE-T (100 Mbps) Ethernet connection requires only two wire pairs, four wire pairs are required for 1000BASE-T Gigabit Ethernet (GbE).

In the past, industrial network engineers were left with few cost-effective options other than standard 8-wire RJ45 connectors. Although the most widely used Ethernet connector, common RJ45 connectors are built for wire closets and office environments. Low-cost plastic RJ45s are particularly vulnerable, because the plastic tab that holds an RJ45 plug in a socket can easily break with the physical stresses and handling typical in a manufacturing environment. Furthermore, conventional RJ45 connectors carry only an IP20 rating, leaving them vulnerable to even casual contact with dust or water.

The introduction of the 8-pin X-code configuration (Figure 3b) has extended the ability of M8/M12 interconnect solutions to support robust connectivity in Ethernet-based industrial networks. The M8/M12 X-code standard supports 1 Gbps data rates, providing a ready path to high-speed 1000BASE-T network connectivity as it evolves in IIoT applications.

High-speed X-coded M8/M12 let network architects and installers more easily standardize on 1000BASE-T networks throughout the enterprise. While conventional IP20 RJ45 connectors are used in back-office Ethernet networks, compatible, ruggedized cables and M8/M12 connectors provide Ethernet-compatible connectivity on the factory floor and other locations where a robust communications infrastructure is required.

Field Friendly

High-speed connectivity is of central importance for industrial data communications. For factory workers and network maintainers expected to connect machinery, equipment and now IIoT devices, industrial connector systems must remain easy to use despite quick, rough handling in the course of the day. The inherent structure and composition of M8/M12 interconnect ensure its ability to withstand physical mistreatment -- and features like standardized coding ensure proper mating of connectors on the factory floor. Besides their ability to withstand daily wear and tear, components in the TE Connectivity M8/M12 interconnect system help simplify physical reconfigurations that are endemic to conventional manufacturing operations -- and emerging IIoT applications.

On the factory floor, network cable maintenance is an ongoing process. Machines and equipment are shifted as needed to different locations in the factory or even different spots in the same work cell. To reduce downtime through these changes, network maintainers need to be able to quickly install new connectors on existing or newly laid cables.

Of course, the nature of the IIoT will significantly add to this workload as IIoT applications grow in manufacturing. For all its promise and potential, the industrial IoT remains a work in progress. As manufacturers gain experience in optimizing their processes with "big data" and as sensor analytics mature, the types and topologies of industrial sensor nets are likely to transform frequently to address new analytical requirements.

The TE Connectivity M8/M12 interconnect system addresses these growing maintenance challenges with connector solutions designed to simplify field installation. TE field-installable M8/M12 connectors comprise a set of interlocking components designed to slip easily on the cable end and allow quick assembly of a dust-tight, water-resistant connector housing (Figure 4).

Figure 4. M8/M12 interconnect systems help simplify network maintenance with field-installable components such as this high-speed X-code connector for shielded cable. (Source: TE Connectivity)


The Industrial IoT promises to significantly impact every industrial segment, bringing unmatched visibility and control in every phase of manufacturing. Using smart sensors deployed throughout the factory, IIoT applications depend critically on reliable connectivity solutions able to withstand the harsh conditions of industrial environments. M8/M12 interconnect solutions combine the kind of robust performance and ease of use needed to meet emerging IIoT requirements.

Written By: Mark Brubaker



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