What will industrial production and automation systems look like 10, 20 and 50 years from now? What do I need to understand about the communications requirements of the factory of the future to guide my planning today?

Part of the vision of the Smart Factory of the Future / Industrial Internet of Things is that all relevant data will be available in real-time, leading to faster and smarter decisions. This in turn will lead to the design of more flexible and efficient processes.

The full vision is described in my first article on this topic. A second article covered how network topology and the balance between wired / wireless applications will change.

Today’s final installment looks at the data rates, cybersecurity and reliability characteristics of the industrial facilities of tomorrow.


The sought-after business benefits of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) are driving technology innovation that will lead to the Smart Factory of the Future becoming a reality.

Smart Factory Data Rates: Gigabit Ethernet is Standard

Needless to say, the future Smart Factory will communicate using faster rates of signal transmission. Today, Fast Ethernet with 100 megabits per second (mbps) is the standard for industrial applications.

In the IT world, Gigabit Ethernet (1000 mbps) has been state-of-the-art for quite some time. Most PCs today support this high data speed. Even if Fast Ethernet is good enough for the amount of data produced by an automation device, the trend will be to use Gigabit in the near future.

Fortunately new chips are already integrating Gigabit Ethernet interfaces, thus decreasing the cost for a faster connection. Plus, advances in semiconductor processes also will lead to lower power consumption, so that today’s price and power consumption arguments will soon be irrelevant.

Along with wired network speeds, wireless network speeds are also increasing. New WLAN technologies, like IEEE 802.11ac and .11ad, are enabling wireless to quickly close the performance gap with wired communications. Such technologies are being perfected now in enterprise deployments. Their adoption in the Smart Factory is expected over time.

IoT Security: Secure-by-Design Devices

The downside of increasing connectivity and use of open standards in industrial networks is a significantly higher risk of cybersecurity incidents. These include deliberate attacks (estimated to account for about 20% of incidents) as well as unintentional human errors and device conflicts.

The Smart Factory network will need to support security functions, including:

  • Encryption to ensure the confidentiality of the data and prevent any unauthorized interception of data, particularly important for data traffic running over public networks.
  • Access control to ensure that only devices allowed to communicate with each other can do so, to prevent unauthorized access during operation.
  • Authentication as another element of access control to block unauthorized devices and users.

The Defense in Depth layers of the future will include the creation of zones of equipment with similar security requirements (as per ISA IEC 62443) or to protect equipment critical to the process.

They will also include a security chain that can be built by devices from the hardware and firmware up to the applications. This will help ensure that each component in the system – software, connection and transaction – is trustworthy, safe and secure. While this sounds like wishful thinking compared to the ICS cybersecurity practices in place today, vendor-neutral organizations like the Trusted Computing Group are working on standards to achieve it.

Other security measures include the detailed logging of all events and changes via log files to precisely track network activity. Network management and security tools can be used to monitor the network behavior and traffic. They can also detect potential threats, like abnormal traffic patterns or unauthorized access attempts, and take appropriate countermeasures.

New call-to-actionReliability Requires Multiple Types of Redundancy

One aspect of reliability in a Smart Factory system is network redundancy, or the behavior of the network in the event of a failure. Disturbances and interruptions in the communications network can never be completely avoided. Failure of a cable or connector due to mechanical overload, the failure of a power supply unit, or even short- term shutdowns for maintenance reasons can affect network traffic.

To ensure that only the smallest possible part of the system is affected, redundancy capabilities that redirect traffic to an alternative path are needed. Redundancy protocols ensure that there is only one logical path between any two devices, even if there are multiple physical paths. Only one of the paths must be active and transfer data, while the other paths are in stand-by mode.

There are a number of protocols on the market that differ both in the switchover time and the supported topology. These include:


Multiple redundancy protocols will contribute to high reliability in the Smart Factory of the Future.

There are also other approaches that are currently available or in the works, such as:

  • a distributed link aggregation protocol (Distributed Resilient Network Interconnect)
  • the Shortest Path Bridging (SPB) protocol (IEEE 802.1aq).

For Smart Factory applications, the required network redundancies must be analyzed carefully before a protocol is chosen. Often, there will be a mix of network segments that use full redundancy based on PRP. For other segments, RSTP, MRP or a distributed link aggregation protocol will be the best choice to achieve network reliability.

IoT Technology Innovation Will Make the Smart Factory a Reality

The success of the Smart Factory / IIoT vision largely depends on the underlying communication technologies achieving high performance levels. If the communication infrastructure cannot meet the demanding requirements, many applications will not work as intended.

Currently, there are many ongoing efforts to close the remaining gaps with new, innovative enhancements in data communication technologies. There are several challenges to overcome, but from today’s perspective, it will one day be possible to provide all the necessary elements to make the Smart Factory vision a reality.

What do you think about our vision of the Smart Factory of the Future? Is it consistent with your predictions for industrial communication networks? What about the Industrial Internet of Things? I look forward to hearing from you.

Editor’s Note: This article was created with expertise from Dr. Tobias Heer and Dr. Oliver Kleineberg from our Hirschmann industrial networking group.

*The restrictions are not related to the total number of switches but are related to the diameter of the network. 

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