Industrial Automation

3 Common Network Failures in Material Handling Environments

Evan Van Heukelom

Every second of network downtime makes a big impact such as lost revenue, late deliveries and unhappy customers.  Let's discuss how we can help you avoid.


Before systems can get up and running again, there’s a scramble to find someone who can troubleshoot the issue, verify the problem, identify a solution and get the right component(s) into place. Depending on the cause of the problem, as well as repair costs and material availability, interruption could last a few minutes, a few hours or a few days (or longer).


There are three common causes of network failure that we often see in material handling environments. Let’s examine each one—and how to prevent them.


  1. Media Failure


    When a network goes down, the physical layer—a damaged cable or poor-quality connector, for example— is responsible more than one-third of the time, according to Datacomm. The same holds true in material handling environments. Many network failures come down to media failure, whether it’s copper, fiber or connector issues. 


    Even though cables and connectors bring technology, automation and material handling systems to life, total cable and connectivity costs often make up less than 2% of a digital, automation or network infrastructure project, according to Technology Record. Attempting to reduce your investment by sourcing inexpensive cables and connectors doesn’t make much of an impact on savings—but it will increase failure risks.


    In industrial environments, cables and connectors are exposed to everything from oil and vibration to dust and high temperatures—and they must continue to perform through it all. If the wrong type of cable or connector is used, then problems are likely to follow.


    For example: A U.S. wastewater plant recently experienced problems with outdoor cameras that monitor treatment processes. Images were breaking up and difficult to decipher, and camera replacement was discussed as a possible solution. But the real problem turned out to be something else: Office-grade cables were being used to connect the cameras to the network, but those cables weren’t designed to perform in harsh conditions. Switching to industrial Ethernet cables fixed the problem right away and prevented an expensive (and unnecessary) camera replacement.


    How can you prevent this type of failure? By using industrial-grade solutions that will deliver the performance, uptime and safety levels required for these types of applications. 


    When tested for performance, industrial-grade cables and connectors are exposed to several conditions to make sure they’re built to last:


    • Abrasion
    • Cold bending
    • Cold temperatures
    • Crushing
    • Cut-through
    • High temperatures
    • Oil immersion 
    • UV rays
    • Water immersion

  3. Lack of Redundancy


    Another common cause of network failure in material handling environments is lack of redundancy. If a cable or connector fails—and it’s the only line of communication between two devices—then downtime occurs. 


    Cabling redundancy allows a network to remain available and avoids downtime when a cable goes down by providing two viable paths for data transmission. When a component in one path fails, then communication continues along the second path. 


    In order for redundancy to work as intended, however, both paths must be functional. But if communication continues, how do you know if one path is down? It’s hard to tell, which is why failure can last for weeks, months or even years without being noticed (until the second path goes down, too).


    Picture this: A conveyor system at a big box distribution center comes to a stop. Workers are shocked. How did this happen with redundant systems in place? The answer is simple: The first path or system was already down. Several months earlier, it failed without anyone noticing. Downtime only occurred when the second system went down.


    Typically, conveyor experts aren’t onsite to support these kinds of issues. Systems are often managed by third parties. When a system goes down, the third party must travel to the site to investigate. Is a device unplugged? Does a wire need to be replaced? Was a cable run over by a forklift? Is a connector malfunctioning? 


    As industrial networks become larger and more complex, the importance of knowing what’s happening in your network—and all the devices and components connected to it—increases as well.


    Without the right tools, it can take lots of manual work and troubleshooting to keep tabs on the status of redundant paths. A network management system (NMS) can detect and alert you to trouble. 


    An NMS can automatically identify network devices, help configure and monitor them, find faults quickly and achieve timely remediation, and offer real-time status and performance data so you know exactly what’s happening. It also maps out network connections and flags potential problems, so you know about them right away.


  4. Overworked Networks


    Another common network failure we notice in material handling environments involves network overload. 


    More people and more devices continue to connect to industrial networks every day. Depending on the cabling and connectivity infrastructure, these networks eventually become bogged down.


    Think about it like this: The McNally Institute reports that a typical train engine or locomotive can pull between 20 and 23 fully loaded cars behind it. Of course, this number varies based on track gradient, weight, operating conditions, etc. If you continue to add cars to a single locomotive, it eventually reaches a point where it can no longer perform as intended. 


    The same holds true for network infrastructure. Every network has a bandwidth and traffic capacity level it’s designed to handle before performance begins to suffer. In a material handling environment, processes may run smoothly until they reach a specific threshold. When too many people and devices are using network bandwidth, systems will slow down and the network may experience downtime. 


    A network assessment can help determine how much your network is being used—and where that usage is coming from. When it’s time for an infrastructure upgrade, remember what we mentioned earlier: You won’t save much by trying to reduce cable and connectivity expenses. Select cables with additional headroom to accommodate future performance requirements. For example: Even if current applications call for Category 6 cable, select a Category 6A solution so you’re ready to add more devices later.


    Want to learn more about how to avoid these common network failures in material handling environments? Belden is here to answer your questions!