By Patrick Chown
Many industrial processes necessitate working in harsh environments, such as in chemical plants, mines, plants in locations with extreme weather, and more. In these environments, regular operations and asset management can be difficult, and specialized equipment and processes are needed to handle operating conditions.
Modern facilities require internet or local network connectivity to facilitate the industrial internet of things (IIoT) or to use other digital tools to support production. Most networking gear and devices are designed to work in a normal operating environment; however, these devices will deteriorate and fail fast when placed in a harsh one.
Creating A Robust Network
Naturally, most normal networking devices and techniques aren’t built to withstand harsh industrial environments. To create a robust network with a longer equipment lifecycle in these conditions, facility managers should consider some these best practices.
Since no environment is the same, facility managers cannot apply a standard networking solution across the board. Operating conditions are the main criteria for selecting the appropriate equipment—including temperature range, humidity range, air quality, particulates in the environment, exposure to corrosive chemicals, area to be networked, amount of devices that need network connection, required bandwidth, uptime requirements, etc. Collecting this basic set of information is the first step before establishing network connections in a facility with a harsh environment.
Once operating conditions have been analyzed, facility managers need to select the type of network that suits their needs. They can have a wired network, a wireless network, or a hybrid model. When a facility only has fixed devices that need network connectivity, wired networks are sufficient. If you have mobile devices like tablets in a small area, you need wireless networks. If the mobile devices are spread over a large area, you need wireless networks and structured cables to reach the different wireless routers. It will also depend on how compatible devices are and whether they support wireless connectivity, wired connections, or both.
Once a basic design is in place, facility managers need to identify the number of junction boxes, routers, repeaters, different types and length of cables needed to complete the network. Keep in mind that devices have to be capable of withstanding the facility’s operating conditions. It’s recommended that they identify the pathways and locations that are the safest for devices and cabling by consulting a blueprint of the facility. Once those pathways have been identified, the network can be installed and initiated. Relying on experienced network installers can also make the process easier and simpler.
Keeping network devices and cables in an enclosure is always preferable. This reduces the impact of harsh operating conditions on equipment. Try to have enclosures with some visibility like a glass window. With that, operators can view the LEDs and easily check the status of the devices without opening the enclosure. Lockable enclosures also help in preventing theft or other kinds of damage.
Some devices, like wireless access points, do not work well when placed in an enclosure. Such devices have to be exposed and you need to expect a lower life cycle for such devices. If a facility executive is building a new facility, they need to consider the networking aspects of the facility in the design phase. Include closed conduits to run network cables and allow provisions for devices in the right places.
In some environments, FMs may not find devices capable of operating in a workplace’s conditions. In such instances, facility managers will have to provision safe, air conditioned spaces to house network devices and servers. A facility with high levels of particulates and corrosive chemicals will find that the use of air filters improves the lifetime of devices. Only wired networks are suitable for facilities with extreme conditions. Outside the air conditioned spaces, you need to use rugged cabling to withstand the operating conditions.
FMs may have a well-designed network, but they also need electricity to power the devices. Provisioning for power availability is part of installing a new network. They also have to take the operating conditions of the facility into account when provisioning and installing networks. FMs should not be scrambling for power after the network installation. It has to be done in the design phase. Depending on the equipment in your facility, it is wise to invest in power protection units, voltage stabilizers, etc.
Network devices generate heat during operations. FMs need to have a safe way to dissipate the heat. This needs special consideration in facilities that do not have air conditioned spaces for network devices. In air conditioned spaces, there is a risk of thermal drainage and you need to plug those gaps. Overheated network devices will deliver lower performance and are prone to failure. Thermal management helps to prevent such incidents.
FMs need to perform regular checks and testing to ensure the network devices are operating properly. Recommendations from OEMs can help you design a procedure and a regular schedule for your maintenance activities. Remember to adjust the recommendations to your operating conditions. Replace batteries, components, and devices at the appropriate time to prevent degradation in performance.
Most modern industrial operations need digital tools and communication networks. Harsh environments can make it difficult to design, implement, and maintain such communication networks. By carefully assessing requirements, selecting the appropriate devices, using an expert design, and thoughtful implementation, FMs can have a robust communication network installed, even with challenging operating conditions.
Chown is the owner and president of network installation company, The Network Installers. The Network Installers specializes in network cabling installation, structured cabling, voice and data, audio/visual, commercial WIFI and fiber optic installation for industrial and commercial facilities.