Guide to connecting automation machines to industrial networks

25 Mar 2024 at 23:00
Technical News

Five ways to connect machines to Fieldbus and Industrial Ethernet networks

 OK, let's say you have constructed the best machine for the industrial automation market. Everyone is going wild about your invention, and you receive requests from factories all over the world.

The problem is that all the factories use different industrial controllers running on different networks, and your machine needs to connect to all of them. How do you establish multi-network connectivity in a way that suits your machine?

 Well, you can start by reading this guide which describes five ways to connect to industrial networks, their pros and cons, and key things to consider. Or you can skip to the end, contact us, and we’ll help you choose the best option to get you up and running.


Part 1: Five ways to get connected and their pros and cons

1. Use an external protocol converter (gateway)


 A gateway is a standalone device that converts network protocols. This is your choice if you do not want to make any changes to the software and hardware of your machine. You simply connect your machine to the gateway to enable communication with any industrial network.

 Gateways are by far the fastest and easiest way to connect an automation product to an industrial network. The user-friendly gateways offer web-based configuration software to set up the connection, meaning no programming is necessary. The configurations can be saved and reused, further simplifying the installation work. You can even create a distinct and personalized look by customizing the gateways with your own logos, product names, article numbers, or colors.

However, gateways do have some disadvantages compared to the embedded alternatives. As they’re standalone devices, they’re not applicable for products that require embedded communication technology. They only offer general functionality. And they’re more expensive, so they’re not ideal for automation devices produced in high volumes.


The fastest and easiest way to get connected. Gateways are the best choice if you only need to connect a low volume of products and don’t need an integrated solution or advanced functionality.


2. Plug in a complete communication module

 An embedded communication module is the most popular choice for multi-network connectivity in the industrial market. Why? Because it’s the easiest way for companies to offer a product capable of connecting to factory networks without investing too much time or effort in developing the required technology.

 To enable your machine to communicate with the module, you add a mechanical and electrical host slot complete with a connector and make the necessary software adjustments. After that, you just attach the module to the host slot, and you’re up and running. And the best thing? You can reuse your design for future implementations for different networks by simply swapping the module for a module designed for the new network. Saving you time and money.

Leading manufacturers of communication modules offer connectivity to over 20 networks simply by plugging in a new module. It is even possible to plug in the module of choice at your premises, simplifying logistics. The best communication modules are pre-certified for different networks, substantially reducing your certification work with network organizations.


 For industrial Ethernet networks, some modules allow you to reuse the same hardware for different networks by simply downloading software for the particular network. Want connectivity to another network? Just download another software package.

 Embedded communication interfaces (options 2-4) provide more functionality than standalone gateways as they transfer data as variables with different data types. The machine can then select the optimal data type to use memory efficiently and increase data processing speed.

 So, what are the downsides? The module is quick to implement as it includes the hardware, software, and connectors in a pre-defined design, but this also means the design may not match your needs. For instance, if you require certain connectors or IP enclosures, brick or chip interfaces may be better suited for your application. A module also has a higher price than a chip or brick.


A complete solution for embedding multi-network connectivity into your machine. Best choice if you need an inbuilt communication interface with a quick time to market.


3. Embed a ready-made communication brick

 A communication brick shares many similarities with a communication module, as it includes hardware, software, and advanced functionality. However, there are a few key differences to consider. Firstly, you add your own connectors, giving you more design freedom. Secondly, communication bricks can be fully embedded within your product, which is particularly useful when space is limited, or you need to provide IP class-certified protection.

 A brick is cheaper than a complete module and is commonly used in products running in high volumes.

 Drawbacks? The brick takes longer to implement compared to a module, as you need to add connectors and peripheral components and then mount the brick onto your product.


Includes software and hardware; just add your connectors and peripheral components. Best choice if you need a high volume, have limited space, or require a specific connector or protection class.


4. Customize your solution around a communication chip

 A communication chip consists of a network processor, offloading your processor from communication tasks, plus the software you need to connect to different networks. With a chip, you can design the hardware exactly as you wish around the chip.

There are several types of communication chips. Some are more or less empty shells where you add your software stacks and do everything from scratch and are, therefore, quite similar to building your own connectivity solution (option five below).

 On the other side of the spectrum, there are chips loaded with software for multi-network connectivity where you don’t have to worry about network upgrades and maintenance once the chip is in place. This latter type will save you time since you will receive software updates whenever network organizations update their networks or new functionality is available.

 For industrial Ethernet networks, you can use the same chip and download different software to be connected to the network of choice (like the module and brick).

A chip is a good option if you manufacture a lot of products and want to minimize costs since you can choose components and design around the chip. However, it requires more work throughout the process. To complete the design successfully, you’ll need to develop expertise in network communication, hardware, and connectors. You’ll need to source all the required components and handle the logistics. You’ll have to conduct more in-house testing than you would with a more ready-made option. Finally, you’ll need to maintain all the components to ensure the chip continues to work as planned. If any components reach their end of life, you’ll need to find replacements, update your design, and re-test.


A chip gives you a lot of flexibility but requires more work during the design phase.


5. Build your own connectivity solution from scratch

This is your choice if you want complete control of your connectivity solution. You’ll have to design and assemble the necessary hardware yourself. You’ll need to develop your own software using stacks etc., to enable communication between your machine and the network. You’ll also need to build the expertise about your chosen networks in-house to give you the required knowledge of industrial networks and connectivity.

The downside is that this takes a lot of time and resources, which you’ll need to take from your core competence (developing the best industrial automation machine ever). You must keep up with network updates maintenance, and subsequent redesign work, and whenever you receive requests to connect to a new network, you’ll have to start from scratch.

Building your own connectivity interface may be viable for companies producing a high volume of products that only need to connect to a single network. However, companies with smaller production runs or those requiring multi-network connectivity often find that developing a custom solution is not cost-effective as it requires significant investment and takes too many resources from their core business.


In-house design gives you complete control, but it’s resource-demanding.


Part 2: Aspects to consider when choosing a communication solution

Make or buy?

The biggest choice you must make is whether to develop a network connectivity solution in-house (choice 5) or use a provider (choice 1-4). An in-house connectivity solution may give you precisely what you want (at least in theory). But you’ll spend a lot of time and resources designing, verifying, and certifying your solution, and then you’ll have to maintain each part yourself. If you want to connect to a new network, you’ll have to start over from scratch, learn about the new network, create new hardware, and develop the software. So, the more networks you want to support, the more time-consuming it is to develop and maintain the required technology.

With a ready-made option (gateways, modules, bricks, and some communication chips), you have a unified solution covering all layers needed for network connectivity. You don’t have to worry about updates to hardware, stacks, or network certifications, as your provider maintains the solution. Most importantly, it is easy to connect to another network by switching products (for Ethernet networks, you can even use the same hardware and just download new software for the respective networks.)

 If you only need to connect to one network, developing and maintaining the network connectivity yourself might be viable. But as soon you need to connect to two or more networks, the complexity, costs, and demands on resources increase, making it difficult and expensive to develop your own solution.

 In short, don’t underestimate the amount of work required to add connectivity to new networks or maintain the hardware and software (including network specifications) for the communication solution.


 Another aspect to consider is how much control you want. If you design your own solution, you maximize your control and do not have to rely as much on suppliers, but this also raises costs, and the resources demanded from your development team.


Data transfer speed between your machine and the network (latency)

 You’ll need to ensure that your connectivity solution meets the requirements. For some machines in some applications, these requirements are low, such as automating the starting and stopping of a motor a few times a day. Other machines, however, such as synchronized drives and motion machinery, require almost instantaneous data transfer with as little delay as possible.

Today, off-the-shelf communication solutions offer very low latency between the network and the host machine. Some high-end solutions provide data transfer of up to 1500 bytes in each direction and latency down to a microsecond.


Support for network-specific features

 Industrial networks vary significantly in their complexity and capabilities. While robust I/O bus systems like PROFIBUS provide only basic functionality, more advanced options such as PROFINET and EtherNet/IP offer features like safety and synchronization, as well as support for IIoT protocols such as OPC UA, file transfer, web servers, and email clients.

To ensure that your machine can support a particular feature, you must choose a communication solution that also supports the required functionality. Therefore, it is crucial to conduct a thorough evaluation of the available communication solutions to confirm that they support the features you need.



Security is increasingly vital as factories and plants become more and more connected to the Internet. To protect yourself against cyber-attacks, you’ll need a communication solution with gatekeeper functionality, such as software signatures preventing unauthorized software from being downloaded to the machine.



To remain competitive in industrial networking, it's crucial to stay up to date with the latest trends. This could mean that your communication interfaces need to support emerging protocols such as CC-Link IE TSN, achieve Gb speeds, or meet increasingly stringent security requirements. While the specific requirements will vary depending on the application, offering the latest functionality can help you gain a competitive edge and position your business for success.

 If you choose to develop your own connectivity solution, it's essential to have a clear plan and budget in place to ensure you can keep pace with emerging technologies. However, this can be a complex and expensive undertaking. Alternatively, partnering with an industrial networking expert can provide an easier and more cost-effective solution. By aligning with a knowledgeable and experienced provider, you can access the latest technology and functionality without the time and expense of developing your own solution.

So which option fits you?

As you can see, there are several options to choose from and many aspects to consider when selecting a communication solution. The choice depends on your requirements for flexibility, communication speed, and of course, how much time, resources, and effort you want to invest. Also, your needs may change as the market progresses or new technology arises, so it’s always good if you have an established method to update your communication solution.


Part 3 How can Anybus help?

Anybus can help you select, install, and maintain a communication interface allowing you to remain focused on manufacturing world-leading automation machines.

 We’ve connected all types of machines or devices to all the major industrial networks for over thirty years. We know what works and what doesn’t, and we’ll happily share our expertise to ensure you find the communication interface that best suits your needs.

 We offer a wide range of ready-made modules, bricks, chips, or standalone gateways to help you quickly and painlessly connect your product to any major industrial network.

Figure 2 Which Anybus ready-made product suits your needs

Check out our range of embedded or gateways products:

Embedded communication interface

Network Gateways