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Just How Smart Is Too Smart for Motor Controls?

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Motor control makers are increasingly turning to protocols such as the Ethernet family to network the machines their products operate. According to IMS Research, the use of Ethernet in motor drives and motion controllers will “more than triple” by 2016. As this conversion progresses, the creation of networked manufacturing facilities also creates the possibility of security vulnerabilities within them.

Here at Dart, we will soon be building Ethernet communications capability into our line of digital DC controls.  This is driven by our customer’s growing need for remote management of drives, including operation and configuration, performance and status monitoring. However, with increased connectivity and access comes increased concern for safety and security.

One popular variant of Ethernet gaining traction in the motor control sector is called EtherNet/IP, or Ethernet Industrial Protocol. (Somewhat confusingly, the “IP” in EtherNet/IP does not stand for Internet Protocol, but the standard does implement TCP/IP through its improvement upon an earlier standard called the Common Industrial Protocol or CIP).

The performance advantages of EtherNet/IP include:

  • Sub-millisecond precision motion control and time synchronization
  • Exceeds mechanical and device limitations for most precision motion-control applications
  • Performance prioritization for motion control and real-time input/output.

According to its inventors at Rockwell Automation, EtherNet/IP offers portability across different data links (Ethernet and WiFi) and IP routability throughout a plant-wide network infrastructure and across wide area networks. It also integrates easily into existing Ethernet and TCP/IP installations, with no special requirements, products, or conditions to meet. And it uses commercial products such as Ethernet switches, routers, firewalls, IP cameras and IP telephony, as well as technologies like wireless and power-line carrier.

Traditional Ethernet is the world’s most common network standard for implementing local area networks, and LANs are intrinsically secure, because they are closed systems. TCP/IP (otherwise known as the Internet) is a notoriously non-secure system, because it is open to everyone. For example, last February a group known as Project Basecamp used an exploit called Metasploit to “hack” an EtherNet/IP network to prove that the protocol is inherently suspect due to its lack of authentication requirements.

So here at Dart, we’ve been wondering just how far we want to go in implementing state-of-the-art networking software into our control products. For example, as we develop new Ethernet-type capabilities for our controls, we’re asking ourselves: “Do we really want to give smart phones access to your motor drives?”

That’s where you come in. We’d like to hear back from our customers on how they would answer this question. So please feel free to jump in with your thoughts on the subject. How far should we take this new accessibility and what are the limits that need to be established?

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