Industrial environments are not the safest of places. Chemicals, heavy machinery, hazardous processes, and the like are fairly common. There’s a very good reason that safety protocols in factories and other industrial sites are very strict and are enforced to the last detail. However, it isn’t just people that are under physical risk in an industrial environment.
The cables that allow smart factory technology to function are also at risk in these places. There are many hazards and even the most toughened, protected cables might still get damaged. This is true for older, “legacy” factories and more modern ones, which makes planning and accounting for these hazards very important. With that in mind, let’s look at just what the common dangers are for an OTS LAN cable in the middle of a factory.
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Differences in Cables
First, let’s take a look at a few important details. The average home or office LAN cable is a different animal from an industrial one when it comes to crucial physical aspects. These are part of what helps them better survive these difficult environments.
The lock-in mechanisms are much more robust in industrial OTS LAN cables, to further reduce the odds of them being yanked out accidentally. Various jackets are available for a number of environments. For instance, any factory that can expect to put their cables in extremely hot conditions will be needing ones with jackets designed to take it. You might also see some cables that are fire-resistant, again as a precaution in certain environments.
Fulfilling the Same Basic Need
Industrial networks are built on the same basic components. Copper, fiber, and occasionally wireless are all functionally the same. The transmission of data is the same, though certain standards are higher to account for the needs of industrial networks. All the cables also hardened.
In general, an industrial environment does not require a long warranty for the cables. No 20-year warranties, like what you might find for office or home environments. Instead, the emphasis is on reliability and consistency. You want to remove all downtime if possible because that could cause disasters. Even just a brief shut-down of a crucial control system can cause an entire plant to grind to a screeching halt and cause losses in the thousands of dollars for each minute it continues.
The Vibration Hazard
Vibration on the factory floor is among the most concerning elements for ethernet cables. Vibrating environments can wear down some of the more delicate components of the wiring, causing loss of signal or failure to function. Industrial cables, in general, have jackets designed to withstand these forces, though it’s still advisable to keep them away from direct sources if possible.
Water and humid conditions are also potential dangers. The obvious issue here is that water can cause sensitive machinery to short out, including any electronic components that the cables are attached to. Water can also potentially disrupt the electrical signals used by the cables to transmit data, though this should only be a problem if the connectors are exposed to it or if the cable’s internal wires are left exposed.
High temperatures and low ones alike can cause serious damage to your networking infrastructure. Electronics are not built to survive temperature extremes. Extreme heat can exacerbate the already prevalent heating problems of the systems, as well as possibly melt jacketing and components. Extreme cold slows performance while also causing permanent damage if left unchecked.
Physical conditions on the factory floor should be accounted for when purchasing the cables. Machines might cut, crush, abrase, burn, or even tear at these by accident. It is generally advisable that they are laid far away from these potential hazards, or at least not directly in the path of any machinery that does this.
Some equipment may also generate a great deal of electromagnetic interference, which is a problem if you’re using copper wires. Shielded cables can help, though not if the interference is great enough. Another way to avoid this is to ensure the ethernet runs perpendicular, not parallel, to the electrical wires.
Finally, chemicals in a liquid state might cause damage. Some of it might be on its own, such as acidic substances that could eat right through the jacket. Others might be due to the conditions of their use, such as chemicals that are super-heated before being mixed together. A third potential hazard is if the liquids spill onto the connectors or ports, risking disruption.
To minimize risk, there are things you can do other than getting the right cables. Small switches, specifically hardened for industrial environments, are available. Routers with a lower number of ports can be bolted to critical areas, reducing the number of necessary connections. Keep any patch cables short. These all make the wiring closet much smaller and reduces the overall risks.
Industrial environments are difficult places. There are all sorts of ways you can break almost anything in there, including network equipment and cables. Keeping these hazards in mind as you purchase and lay out your new networking equipment is essential to getting it right the first time.