By Andrew Dierks, director of product management at Conductix-Wampfler
Improving industrial machinery’s cybersecurity comes down to choosing the right infrastructure for your technology and operations. Although automation and digital transformation are strongly associated with WiFi infrastructure, there are a few drawbacks.
The remote accessibility of WiFi networks is convenient, but in an industrial setting, the wireless connection provides more opportunity for unauthorized users to infiltrate the network using any WiFi-compatible device. While cybersecurity practices can make unauthorized access more complicated, security breaches are still possible.
To bolster cybersecurity while modernizing operations, think beyond WiFi and consider implementing hardwired data-over-power transmission, also referred to as PLi-Fi or powerline communication. Data-over-power transmission is a newer and innovative solution that offers similar capabilities to modern WiFi for mobile equipment-communication applications without many of the drawbacks.
Establishing your infrastructure with data-over-power transmission is ideal, especially in applications where consistency and dependability are key—think real-time motion-control operations or live video feeds for autonomous mobile robots. Additionally, data-over-power transmission systems are not affected by RF crowding, competition for bandwidth, physical barriers or other significant obstacles that often limit WiFi signal strength and reach.
When and where WiFi encounters challenges, hardwired, data-over-power transmission prevails.
Evaluating for implementation
If you decide that data-over-power transmission is the best solution for your operation, the next step is to evaluate how the technology can be implemented. Because these systems rely on power conductors to transmit data, they can be used in new and existing systems with plug-and-play installation without networking expertise or special equipment. The data-over-power solutions seen in today’s market are compatible with a range of power-conductor profiles, including festoon, cable chain, slip ring, conductor rail and cable reels.
In terms of data-transmission functionality, data-over-power communication is often divided into two categories—narrowband and broadband—based on frequency ranges. Narrowband, which describes communication using low-frequency ranges (3-500 kHz), typically includes use cases with low data-rate applications requiring less than 100 kbps. In-house custom solutions are very costly to develop and implement at the volume of a single company and are generally limiting.
The other category, broadband, gives a better balance of longer transmission distances with the added benefit of much higher data rates (100-350Mbps). It’s also commercially available, so you don’t have to design your own system. However, the system lengths must be shortened due to the higher frequency and data rates. Many of the most common use cases leverage broadband as a solution for users with increasing data demands, now and in the future.
Putting it into practice
Lastly, let’s examine the application of data-over-power in a real-world scenario. In this example, a customer who manufactures steel coils would like to add intelligence to their crane used to sort and store coils in their warehouse. They want to add the ability to automatically sort coils by part number and customer order to support their new, expedited members’ shipping program. Providing a data link along the entire runway will be critical.
The PLC on the crane must have network connectivity to the building to receive order coordinates for the storage location. A link to both the X- Y- and Z-axis-positioning sensors will also be required to identify the crane’s position relative to where the order is to be stored. A camera on the trolley provides the operator feedback for monitoring locally or remotely. Due to the environment, industrial WiFi would require several repeaters to be reliable, and ample time to identify problem locations. With the addition of data-over-power communication, providing data along this dynamic system becomes the simplest part of the project.
Security for the future
Looking into the future, cybersecurity standards and best practices will continue to evolve. While it’s crucial to establish a strong foundation for cybersecurity in your infrastructure, it’s equally critical to keep up with the latest standards and best practices. With that in mind, ensure that your systems and equipment can adapt and scale as the industry discovers opportunities for future improvements to cybersecurity measures. If you approach digital transformation with cybersecurity at the start, you can set your business up for years of ongoing efficiency and optimized performance.