Industrial automation as a sector is set to reap a host of technological benefits. They include the usual suspects like higher bandwidth to support machine-to-machine communications and ultra-low latency. Both have a role to play, as time-sensitive networking (TSN) emerges as Ethernet’s heir apparent as the golden standard for data delivery.
“Latency is a consistent concern in real-time automated systems,” said Jonathan Hou, Chief Technology Officer at Pleora Technologies, a sensor-networking solutions provider in markets like industrial inspection and robotics. He argues that without the right tools, the different layers of latency may be challenging to unpack.
“In an inspection system, for example, multiple components from the edge to the processor, cabling, and display rates all contribute to delays,” he added. “The roll-out of 5G will help with some of these, but latency performance still needs significant networking expertise and the right components. TSN should help alleviate some of these concerns by prioritizing real-time delivery over the network.”
Ethernet vs. Time-Sensitive Networking
The transition from traditional Ethernet to TSN won’t happen overnight. In fact, and admittedly ironically, the TSN process is expected to take a few years. In a world where networking delays are as welcome as a flat tire, slow and steady may be the only way TSN can come out ahead.
It is all just a matter of time. The big question is whether it will be worth the wait.
The inevitable move to TSN is not a result of anything Ethernet did wrong, or any violation of its role as the go-to way to connect devices over a network. Instead, the transition is simply an example of the next natural step to enable and connect a burgeoning number of devices as the Internet of Things evolves, specifically in the industrial sector.
After all, Ethernet, in all of its incarnations, has been around since 1980. Since then, Ethernet has undergone vast “upgrades” with the purpose of supporting higher bit rates and also experienced determinism, particularly in industrial settings, which is key. In many ways, TSN is somewhat of an upgrade to Ethernet itself, as the former sets protocols for the transmission of data over the latter.
The Need for Determinism
Determinism implies a guarantee data will be transmitted in a predictable, timely fashion. TSN, which is a collection of standards developed by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) rather than a single solution, is being heralded as a more reliable, deterministic progression relative to today’s Ethernet.
There is an undeniable and intrinsic need for determinism in real-time systems – especially those that populate and drive the industrial sector. However, though there’s no theoretical guarantee a packet will arrive at its intended location without TSN, according to Hou, Ethernet has already successfully been deployed in conjunction with machine-vision inspection systems, for example.
“Many of the breakthroughs in the machine-vision market, like the wide deployment of Ethernet interfaces and the IEEE 1588 standard for synchronization have resulted from advances from the traditional networking world,” Hou said, adding TSN brings with it a certain comfort level, for a smoother transition to more networked approaches.
Time Sensitivity as a Safety Net
As systems within factories for example become more interconnected with the development of 5G technology, TSN undeniably has a role to play. As described earlier, TSN ensures packets are delivered without any losses or delays. In addition to that goal, it is also set to facilitate the convergence of information technology (IT; office) and operational technology (OT; process control) communications.
That convergence is an absolute necessity, as systems become more integrated and communication between machines becomes a necessity in the ecosystems of whole industries. Much like industrial automation will find good use for the increased bandwidth headed its way with the advent of 5G and eventually 6G, networks will eventually utilize and normalize the added consistency.
In that sense, TSN will be a requirement, because it aims to streamline reliability with far greater cost-effectiveness than previous updates and extensions to traditional Ethernet. For today, the emphasis should remain on “aims,” because there is still time before it becomes the norm.
In the latest release of the 3GPP-determined 5G standard, Release 16, introduced the concept of TSN support, but some of the IEEE standards still need to be finalized. Considering the timeline to first produce compatible chips, then integrate those chips into devices, and finally begin to get those devices into factories, it will take a while. In large part, TSN is more frequently envisioned as a safety net than a mere security blanket, technologically speaking. After all, TSN has a legitimate function and the IoT-driven industries and ecosystems of our future will absolutely need it. Instead of growing out of Ethernet, our changing world is growing into TSN instead.
Feature image courtesy of Harry Sandhu (via Negative Space).