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Who better to service industrial IoT than electrical designers and electricians?

May 26, 2022 | By Luke Young

Photo: RainerPlendl/iStock / Getty Images Plus / Getty Images

May 26, 2022 – If you are among those in the electrical, instrumentation, and controls realm who are considering how the 4th Industrial Revolution (a.k.a. Industry 4.0) will reshape your business, your career—your world—you are not alone.

And, if you’re not, I suggest you consider the potential.

The shift is driving significant change in every sector of industry, worldwide. Truly intelligent buildings will not only use IP devices (and their data) for enhancing efficiencies, safety, and user experience with building services (e.g. lighting, HVAC, security, access control), but will also settle on IP as the preferred platform for operations.

Similar to the commercial business and consumer worlds, the interoperability and proven performance of the IP communication protocol is opening the door to significantly improved vision and efficiency for industries of all shapes and sizes.


(This article will not delve into the actual design of an industrial facility’s communications infrastructure. To learn how to design such systems, I highly recommend training through an industry association like BICSI [bicsi.org]. Their flagship credential—Registered Communications Distribution Designer [RCDD]—is granted to those who have demonstrated their knowledge in the creation, planning, integration, execution and/or detailed-oriented project management of telecom and datacom technology.)

For electrical/I&C infrastructure installers working in industrial settings, this requires understanding the unique characteristics of these challenging environments well enough to design and install robust and reliable IP infrastructure systems to support IIoT (Industrial Internet of Things).

Installer considerations: health & safety

Some of you may be familiar with common practices for installing Ethernet communications infrastructure in commercial and institutional spaces but, for many, the factory floor is foreign territory.

And with good reason, because there can be a myriad of differences, such as: workplace safety, food safety (and other industry-specific work protocols); physical topologies that deviate from the standard hierarchical star; different connector types to terminate and test; different materials used for pathways; hazardous areas; and unique grounding and bonding challenges.

And let’s not forget the most important aspect: workplace safety which, in production and manufacturing facilities, is extensive and stringent. In fact, it is not uncommon for a client to require third-party safety compliance assurance before a contractor is approved to perform work. Additional training may also be required to ensure installers understand how to recognize, assess, and mitigate the safety risks in these varied environments.

When considering safety, one primary difference for installers is the physical location of a device outlet. Most outlets are required within enclosures that also contain open electrical apparatus, which are typically only accessible to qualified electrical personnel.

This aspect directly opens opportunities for electrical contractors, as most Ethernet communications infrastructure contractors do not employ electricians. They generally have no need of them in commercial or institutional applications. The low-voltage contractor’s default option is to power down and lock out power to these enclosures, but many industrial facilities do not have this luxury due to the significant impact it would have on production.

Again, this represents a prime opportunity for electricians who are willing to engage in the training required to install, terminate, label, test, and troubleshoot an industrial Ethernet infrastructure.

Next, it is almost inevitable that an industrial installation will require working at heights. Personnel must be formally trained and provided with the necessary PPE (personal protective equipment). The training components often include, but are not limited to: fall protection (how to properly select and use the PPE); how to create an appropriate fall rescue plan; aerial lift training for each type of lift a worker is required to use; and ladder safety.

Several other considerations come into play when working at heights in industrial settings. Overhead gantry-style cranes are common, and can be overlooked when identifying safety hazards. Make sure you know the travel extent of these cranes and, when work needs to be performed in that area, make arrangements to work when the crane is locked out.

Especially when working at heights, look for (and ask operations personnel) if there are any pieces of moving equipment in the areas in which you plan to work, as well as traffic from fork lifts and pedestrians—not to mention operator work areas.

Food, beverage, and pharmaceutical operations have strict guidelines for any type of construction or maintenance work due to safety regulations. As an installer, you will need to become familiar with these regulations, and adapt your work methods accordingly.

Performing the work

Drilling, cutting, and grinding—plus the use of any non-food grade lubricants—are generally prohibited within certain areas of the plant. The commonly used framing channel (i.e. Unistrut) is generally prohibited since it cannot be easily cleaned. Conduits are normally spaced away from the surfaces along which they run to facilitate cleaning. Stainless steel pathways and support systems may be required.

Consult the client’s project manager, operations, and/or maintenance staff to ensure your installation plan meets their standards.

Within the industrial space, there is a need to employ plug/connector terminations and physical topologies that are unique to this environment. For example, a technician will need to know how to install, terminate, and test an M12-style connector, which is often used when connecting end devices in harsh environments. The M12 D-style uses only two wire pairs and, therefore, a typical permanent link or channel test cannot be used, since it is looking for four pairs. Special test adapters/cables are also required to facilitate testing of the M12 connectors.

Devices may be connected in a ring or linear topology, depending on equipment layout and the criticality of the connected devices to the machine or process. Since each installed cable is not home run to a common rack/switch enclosure (as in a traditional star topology), it is imperative that a standards-compliant and easy-to-follow labelling scheme is employed to properly support these topologies.

It is common for industrial clients to have their own unique specs for various pathway types throughout their facility. As an installer, you will need to know how to properly install several types of conduit: Schedule 40 galvanized steel, aluminum, stainless, and non-metallic (PVC) conduits; thin wall (EMT) conduit; and several types of tray, including basket, ladder, and channel.

Outside of client standards or preferences, there are applications where the electrical code will denote material type and methodology. Hazardous or classified areas, as defined in CE Code-Part I, exist throughout industry. It is important for an installer to be aware of these areas and understand code requirements for installing pathways through these spaces and, potentially, work area outlets.

The designer will likely specify the components, but the installer is responsible for ensuring they are assembled properly. Review the code, and check with your authority having jurisdiction.

Some industrial spaces may contain areas that are deemed “outside plant”. Although these areas may be technically “inside”, they are not environmentally controlled, and are subject to temperature and humidity extremes. Any interconnect medium needs to be capable of withstanding the transition from outside plant to indoor ambient.

Challenges with grounding/bonding

Challenges abound when grounding/bonding a system within an industrial environment because of its dynamic nature. In other market segments, the electrical distribution system is generally pretty static, and designed accordingly. The infrastructure—right down to powering the equipment and user devices—is built to support the needs of the occupants for the duration of the building’s life. Large, power-hungry equipment is installed once and, generally, remains in place.

In contrast, large power users (machines and supporting systems) in industrial spaces might be moved, replaced, or have something added to them. Machines and equipment may have their own transformer(s) for voltage adjustment and/or isolation protection. As these power components migrate around the facility, it is common to see differences in ground potential between pieces of equipment and, possibly, the base building’s power distribution system.

The voltage potential difference across the grounding/bonding planes, our data enclosures and every connected end device must be considered. The differences in potential can result in the introduction of harmful “noise” into our system.

A shielded copper media can create yet another significant design challenge: a phenomenon often referred to as a “ground loop”, in which current flows through the cable shield as it tries to equalize the voltage potential difference. This, too, introduces a significant level of noise to the media.

The problem is exacerbated in industrial environments, since there are multiple voltage sources stemming from various transformers and types (both on and off machine) combined with the basic power distribution system XFMRs that power the building’s regular infrastructure.

These differences in potential move and change along with the equipment, and can quickly introduce harmful levels of electrical noise into the communications infrastructure. In a perfect scenario, all grounding and bonding would be sufficient and remain intact such that this situation would not be a concern, but history tells us otherwise.

In light of this, installers must be keenly aware of this scenario when installing the infrastructure, and may need to consult the designer throughout a project to achieve a reliable communication system.

So much relies on the communications infrastructure

When we consider that the communications infrastructure on a factory floor controls both the production equipment and its inherent safety components, it reminds us of the importance of getting it right. A substandard infrastructure may lead to machine or process malfunctions and downtime, product spoilage, and possibly endanger someone’s life.

The key to rolling out a successful industrial IP infrastructure project is to ensure both the design and installation teams have sufficient knowledge and experience to identify and mitigate the incumbent risks to the infrastructure within these varied environments. Choose to learn and grow together.

Luke Young is manager, Automation Services & Solutions, at Gerrie Electric Wholesale Ltd., an independent electrical distributor with 22 branches and two distribution centres in south-central Ontario. Luke is also a Master Electrician and Registered Communications Distribution Designer (RCDD).

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