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Ethernet still lags a long way behind fieldbuses

28 February, 2013

Fieldbus–based communications systems accounted for 75% of new industrial automation network connections in 2011 – three times more than those using industrial Ethernet – according to a new study by IMS Research, now part of IHS. Even by 2016, fieldbuses will still account for 69% of new connections, but Ethernet is growing faster and will become the dominant networking technology within 10–15 years, IHS predicts.

Automation component vendors are increasingly offering Ethernet as standard on their devices, the study points out. As they push the adoption of Ethernet protocols, machine-builders and end-users are having to switch from older fieldbus technologies.

In the graph above, the green bars show fieldbus' share of the industrial communications market (right axis), while the dark blue line (top) shows the annual growth rate of industrial Ethernet (left axis) and the light blue line (bottom) shows the annual growth rate of the fieldbus market (also left axis).

"While fieldbus solutions offer connection speeds that may be fast enough for certain applications, they do not offer a unified networking approach, such as with Ethernet technologies,” says Tom Moore, IHS research analyst for industrial Ethernet, fieldbus, and wireless. “It’s not just unification which is an issue. Simplifying the network can reduce company overheads through an integrated system. This is difficult to achieve with fieldbus technologies.

“Instead,” he continues, “end-users will usually have separate office IT divisions and a factory IT divisions. Ethernet adoption across a plant or factory provides a better environment for sharing information and a single division with responsibility for the overall network, the benefits of which are likely to be less downtime and lower overall cost.”

IHS suggests that fieldbuses still have a strong future, with new connections continuing to grow year-on-year. However, industrial Ethernet is expanding even faster. IHS believes that within 10–15 years, industrial Ethernet will be the dominant networking technology in industrial environments, with almost every automation component offering Ethernet connectivity as standard.

Long product lifecycles and conservatism in industry will maintain a dominant position for fieldbus technologies in the near term, but eventually they will be relegated to a supporting role. “With the reduction in adoption, will likely come an increase in cost also,” says Moore, “further fuelling the transition to industrial Ethernet”.

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