Case Study: Bay Networks' 5000 workgroup hubs and 28000 Ethernet switches

A network design incorporating Bay Networks' 5000 workgroup hubs and 28000 Ethernet switches has given Cosworth Castings the...

A network design incorporating Bay Networks' 5000 workgroup hubs and 28000 Ethernet switches has given Cosworth Castings the ability to expand the number of connected network end stations

Visit the showcase Cosworth Castings production plant at Warden, just south of Birmingham, and it becomes apparent why volume manufacturers, including Jaguar, Ford and Vauxhall, are Cosworth customers. What connects these companies is the need for timely delivery of correct components, at the right price, and the assurance that their reputation is not going to be undermined by poor quality control by suppliers. From Cosworth they get all three.

Cosworth Castings' control systems engineering manager, Nick Golledge, was looking for a company that understood what it was selling, that could demonstrate creative ideas and whose staff were prepared to accept ownership of a project with the same commitment that Cosworth expected of its own staff. Based on these requirements, Golledge selected network systems integrator, Datarange, as his partner in networking the new production site at Warndon. Datarange was chosen for its networking pedigree in some of the UK's largest financial services institutions and its ability to understand and deliver what Cosworth needed.

Networks have been as much a part of process control in industry as PC networks have in commerce - except that the technology on the factory floor has, in some ways, lagged behind that in the office. Although industrial robots, machine tools and conveyors have been driven by microprocessor-based programmable logic controllers for many years, the factory has, until recently, been the exclusive preserve of specialist vendors. These specialists developed the robust, dedicated systems to control industrial machinery and when customers began to demand the ability to network their logic-controlled systems together, they offered to provide the infrastructure. However, although proprietary process control networks could offer a proven-under-fire level of robustness, they had been exposed as slow and cumbersome in comparison with the advancing standards-based solutions from other suppliers.

At Cosworth Castings, network speed, bandwidth and reliability matter for two reasons. On the administrative, office-based side of the company's operations, users of PCs can be no more tolerant of network delays or lockouts than their colleagues in any other sector of industry. On the factory floor, the need for speed assumes a more critical dimension because real-time monitoring of processes can be crucial to efficient production as well as to the reliability of the network to achieve deadlines.

It was with a desire to deliver the benefits of real-time centralised monitoring and put in place an industry-standard network infrastructure that could handle both factory floor and office requirements that Golledge began to look seriously at using Ethernet. "We asked ourselves the obvious question," he says. "What's the point in using a non-standard proprietary network when an off-the-shelf Ethernet will deliver more than ten times the speed and at far less cost?"

However, Cosworth Castings' production site is hardly a "normal" Ethernet environment. Aluminium is held at 700 degrees centigrade in 75kW electric furnaces, three-phase supply cables criss-cross the roof void and fully automated robots and other heavy plants labour ceaselessly on the shop floor.

It was therefore with a mission to determine whether or not standard Ethernet could hack it in the factory that Golledge ran a trial at Cosworth Castings' development site. Based on thin Ethernet and using PCs as gateways to the existing proprietary process control network, the trial proved that if Ethernet equipment was sited sensibly, and if the correct cable types were used, then a massive increase in performance was available for a much smaller outlay. The differential was enormous. Golledge says: "When you are asked something like £800 for a proprietary network card and yet you can buy a much faster Ethernet card for less than a quarter of the cost and you can make the Ethernet solution as robust, then it's not a hard decision to make.

"I wanted to buy hardware that was established and well-recognised within the industry, that wouldn't be redundant within 12 months and would be capable of growing with us, not just in terms of the network population, but also in possible future speed increases."

The network design incorporated a mixture of Bay Networks' 5000 workgroup hubs and 28000 Ethernet switches. A combination that, due to its modularity and upgrade capabilities, gives Cosworth Castings the ability to greatly expand the number of connected network end stations and to migrate to dedicated 100 Mbit/s Ethernet, should it become appropriate. Bay Access Stack Node routers provided the wide area capability, and the Optivity suite, with a comprehensive network management platform, rounded off a robust and future-proof solution that met all their criteria.

Cabling was always going to be an unusually critical element, but again, the inherent flexibility of the hardware platforms selected paid dividends, enabling fibre, STP and Category 5 UTP to be used selectively in the appropriate locations. The only other concession made to electromagnetic protection was to site shop floor hubs well away from sources of radiation.

As an expandable infrastructure, the network has proved its mettle. It now handles more than double the original number of end-stations since Cosworth Castings' second production plant was brought on-stream. This enabled production and administrative traffic to be separated, creating two distinct virtual networks. A routed link to the headquarters' HP mini computer has also been implemented over leased KiloStream lines, enabling workstations at Warndon to become virtual terminals on the central system.

Golledge has reason to be pleased with the way the network is performing. "It's been pretty much a fire-and-forget operation for us. It was installed in far less time than I expected and has worked without a problem ever since," he says.

Now that the resource is in place, Golledge can turn his attention to using it to provide added value to the production process with new projects, such as the development of on-line scheduling, for the plant.

One current illustration of the power of the network is the part it plays in quality assurance, carrying real-time furnace temperature measurements for storage along with other parameters. "The temperature of the furnaces is crucial because it directly affects the quality of the castings," Golledge explains. "We can now go back to any day, to any hour, and see exactly what was happening."

Compiled by Mike Burkitt

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