Plant managers, IT directors, and technology decision makers are increasingly looking at digital transformation as a way to increase operational efficiency and align production with business goals.
As organizations across industries lean on new technologies to improve business outcomes, they often discover that these projects require expertise that may not exist in-house. Big or small, working with an integration partner can simplify this process.
The Value of Performing a Network Assessment
A comprehensive network assessment is one of the ways an experienced integration partner can help set an organization up for success before it gets too far down the path of digital transformation. This process can help determine if a network is able to meet the functional requirements needed to achieve production and business goals. The process generally involves evaluating the network, documenting design or implementation issues, and offering recommendations to prevent or address these issues.
For example, industrial networks are transitioning from unmanaged, flat networks to segmented, routed, and managed architectures. This may be happening proactively because new facilities are being built and the infrastructure is being reimagined, or reactively because a network administrator discovers the current network is running out of IP addresses and therefore can’t add new devices. Ethernet/IP is becoming the communication medium of choice in this industrial landscape because of its scalability, speed, and available capacity that comes without requiring a proprietary protocol. This shift, in conjunction with the adoption of enterprise IT standards and protocols, makes network design extremely flexible. Since flexibility also means more complexity, it is important to understand how the effect of one failure can ripple through the rest of the system. As such, a typical assessment would focus on the most common areas of susceptibility including network availability, redundancy, power accessibility, and environmental factors.
Flexware’s Approach to Network Assessments
When we conduct a network assessment, Flexware engages in onsite interviews with various teams to get a detailed understanding of their goals and pain points, as well as getting an up-close look at their physical infrastructure. We’ll also conduct a detailed inventory where we track every device, including their operating condition and the physical areas in which they operate. This provides a very practical view of whether or not a particular device can operate at its full potential. For example, is the cabling of a system properly connected or does it have adequate shielding to avoid introducing unnecessary noise? Sometimes we can help customers realize efficiency gains in real-time during this process by identifying simple problems that have gone unidentified.
We check to make sure devices are suited to the environments they are operating, so if there is a lot of dust or moisture present, we can make a recommendation on using components ruggedized for those conditions. In doing so, we will be able to determine if the devices in operation are still available or if they can still be serviced. Based on the customer interviews and these on-site reviews, our engineering team will develop a comprehensive assessment report that will include the major component inventory, an overview of the physical network, and detailed recommendations to solve specific issues if any are identified.
It can be hard to justify proactively addressing issues that may or may not be dragging down performance. But waiting until an issue makes itself known can have severe consequences if that problem brings the entire plant down while a solution is found. Success in this area depends on the ability to anticipate and identify issues, address them quickly, and be able to make IT decisions from an overwhelming number of options. Embracing the digital transformation journey can be a daunting proposition. Organizations that delay or kick the problem down the road because they lack in-house expertise are going to have a hard time keeping the challenge manageable and will probably cost themselves a lot of time and money in the long run.
The Elements of an Effective Network Assessment
An assessment can be used to learn about potential problems that could result in future unplanned downtime, and a typical evaluation should look at the following:
- Performance of the network against stated goals or design requirements – With effective planning, a network can be designed to scale with the organization’s needs while also isolating and prioritizing critical traffic.
- Design issues that hinder network scalability – A lot of manufacturing operations are aging, and uncovering issues in these legacy systems often reveals islands of networks that do not communicate with each other – either because they were not designed to or because they are physically unable to.
- Capacity of current network and capability to assume future expansions – Organizations will add devices until they run out of IP addresses, which they might not even know is an issue until a conflict occurs and production is disrupted. One of the ways they sidestep this issue is by simply expanding their subnet. This is a temporary fix at best, and can introduce new problems due to congestion, and just isn’t scalable when the time comes to introduce large-scale IT projects into the environment.
- Integration strategy for sharing information with business systems – OT networks are often siloed, outside the “walled garden” of IT networks and a network assessment can provide the best path for safely connecting these two areas.
If you would like more information about how to identify potential inefficiencies with your current network click here, or to learn more about how we’ve approached this with customers in the past, we would love to hear from you.
VP of Strategic Initiatives
Husband, father to four crazy boys, and a new grandpa. Music and baseball junkie. During the weekends, you’ll find me building and fixing things. I love the country.