As industrial manufacturers and operators continually work to be globally competitive, one area they look at for cost and efficiency savings is network infrastructure. The magnitude of the change happening with industrial infrastructure is very large -- and the opportunity to play a small part in this change is one reason I have recently moved from our Tofino Security brand to the Industrial IT group.

For those of you that don’t know me, I headed up the Tofino Security marketing group for five years and had the privilege of working with Eric and Joann Byres to pioneer a new approach to industrial security for the plant floor. This involves dividing networks into zones of equipment with similar security requirements and then protecting those zones with firewalls designed for industry such as the Tofino Industrial Security Solution. A key aspect of the Tofino solution is that it is designed to be simple to implement and maintain for those who work on the plant floor.

Now as part of Belden’s Industrial IT group, I am working with people and products that are addressing network simplicity and efficiency from a broader perspective. This involves looking at overall industrial networking best practices and applying them for particular applications. Today I am going to introduce you to a company and application that has been able to achieve significant cost savings and efficiencies by simplifying its industrial communications networks.

Automotive Solution 

Automotive Bell Housings made by AAM. Photo courtesy of AAM.

Auto Parts Manufacturer moves to EtherNet/IP Communications

I was fortunate to see Jeff Smith, Technical Engineering lead for American Axle & Manufacturing (AAM) speak at last fall’s Belden Industrial Ethernet Infrastructure Design Seminar. AAM is a global Tier-One automotive supply manufacturer with more than $2.6 billion in sales of driveline and drivetrain systems. It operates at more than 30 locations in 13 countries around the world.

Jeff described how AAM’s various facilities had been using up to five different fieldbus protocols for communications with the sensors, instruments and motors etc. that are essential to its manufacturing. The complexity resulted in lengthy time-to-deployment of new assembly lines, multiple sets of training documentation and costly downtime for maintenance.

AAM selected EtherNet/IP for its standard communications protocol. EtherNet/IP met the company’s criteria of high speeds, reliable performance, industry standard accessibility and full capability of future expansion. An added benefit was its compatibility with the firm’s existing IT infrastructure and networking standards. Many industrial engineers would define an Ethernet-based solution as a networking protocol first and foremost. For AAM, the fieldbus component was the most important attribute.

“For our purposes, EtherNet/IP is a fieldbus first and a network second,” said Jeff.. “EtherNet/IP had to be capable of controls functions such as reading inputs and writing outputs to allow us to achieve our goals. If it couldn’t have accomplished that, we would have kept on looking.”

Standardizing on EtherNet/IP required coordination with AAM production line equipment suppliers. The company informed suppliers that they would need to offer EtherNet/IP compatibility within a defined timeline and assisted a number of suppliers with that development to help them meet the goal on time.

Industrial Ethernet Infrastructure Best Practices 

In addition to adopting EtherNet/IP, Jeff’s simplification program involved a number of other networking best practices. For example, standard segmented network configurations were developed, tested and then deployed.


One of AAM’s standard network configurations is this production line network. It includes Hirschmann MACH 100 rack-mount and RS20 DIN rail-mount managed switches.
This strategy of developing standard configurations and deploying them globally was a success. Key outcomes of the standardization program are:

  • “Cookie-cutter” network configurations reduce configuration, training and maintenance costs.
  • Downtime events due to network related issues are now rare, and less downtime saves money and improves product delivery.
  • Changeover flexibility. When AAM decided to move its assembly systems’ EtherNet/IP networks from star to ring topologies, they found the transition to be smooth.

Standard Industrial Ethernet Infrastructure Results in Cost, Time and Efficiency Savings

Prior to standardizing on EtherNet/IP and network configurations, it took four to six months and significant onsite engineering support to launch a new assembly system. After the new standards were defined, AAM flawlessly launched four assembly lines simultaneously in four months with no headquarters engineering support required.

At our Design Seminar, Jeff also talked about his approach to security, which is pragmatic and particularly interesting to me -- however that is a topic for another article!

What is your experience with implementing networking best practices? Has your organization standardized communications on a particular protocol? Let us know about your successes and challenges.

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