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Ethernet use in process automation will double in five years

17 June, 2013

The number of industrial Ethernet nodes used in the process sector could almost double between 2011 and 2016, as the technology challenges “traditional” fieldbuses in networking applications, says a new study from IMS Research, now part of IHS.

The report suggests that the number of industrial Ethernet nodes used by the process sector will soar from 4.4 million in 2011 to 8.7 million by 2016 – a 96% increase. This means that industrial Ethernet will account for 45% of networked node connections in process industries in 2016, up from 39% in 2011. This growth will come at the expense of fieldbus technologies, which are forecast to expand at 51% during the same five-year period.

“The process industry is renowned for being slow to adopt new technologies,” says IHS’ analyst for industrial Ethernet and fieldbus technologies, Tom Moore. “However, in some key areas, industrial Ethernet adoption is beginning to overtake fieldbus as the mainstream networking technology.”

A good example in the process sector is safety. Although not always driven by legislation, process safety systems are updated fairly regularly to ensure operator safety and maximise uptime. This short lifecycle means that new technologies can break into the market more quickly and are easier to implement, because there are more opportunities for refreshing networks when refitting.

“There is also a move to greater connectivity,” Moore adds. “Networking is becoming more of a commodity, which means that remote monitoring and control is more accessible. This is also true of discrete automation.”

Process components and systems, such as RTUs (remote terminal units) and distributed control systems, are already widely networked. About 95% of new shipments are projected to be network-enabled in 2016, up from 90% in 2011.

“The increase is projected to be relatively slow, but is likely to reach 100%,” says Moore. “Network-enabling products are now almost seen as a commodity and are expected by the process industry. As networking ability increases, the number of average nodes is also increasing. This enables the use of more elaborate networks and topologies.”

IHS expects the uptake of industrial Ethernet to expand and predicts a CAGR of just above 14% for new networked nodes in process applications during the period to 2016. This growth rate is well above that for new fieldbus nodes, which is expected to be less than 9% for the same period.

IHS suggests that Ethernet-based networks are a wise choice for those looking to upgrade their networking infrastructures in the near future. While fieldbus adoption is still growing, industrial Ethernet offer several potential advantages, including reduced costs and increased uptime as a result of the simplification of networks.

However, fieldbus still has some advantages. The widely-used Hart protocol, for example, can overlay signals on 4–20mA wiring. Some fieldbus systems also have a sizable legacy which means that a lot of machinery still uses the older protocols.

While industrial Ethernet will have to overcome these hurdles, HIS expects it to replace fieldbus in many applications in the next 10 to 15 years. Reduced overheads, more accessible production data and decreased downtime are key attractions that will drive its adoption in the longer term.

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