TechnologyMarch 28, 2024

The next generation factory demands a next generation network

Figure 1: Manufacturing environments may need more than one wireless connectivity technology.

This article describes tomorrow's smart factories, and how Cisco is delivering on this vision today with a unified industrial security and networking architecture that simplifies and helps scale deployment, brings seamless mobility, and positions manufacturers to better achieve their Industry 4.0 objectives.

When you think about what the next generation factory would look like, what comes to mind? Is it a factory that can rearrange itself like Lego blocks, adapting production lines to fluctuating demand and new product lines with moving vehicles and robots? Or is it a factory with ubiquitous connectivity where a digital nervous system of sensors, wireless networks, and where data flows freely, fueling AI-powered insights and decisions? Or is it a factory with an upskilled workforce where humans won’t be replaced, but their roles will evolve, where they’ll become the designers, programmers, analysts, and problem-solvers, working in tandem with technology to optimize and oversee production? Or even a factory with software controlled closed-loop automation where process data informs cloud applications that continuously optimize processes?

Whatever your vision for the next generation factory is, you will agree that the future of efficient manufacturing will be built on the backs of a resilient, secure, and intelligent industrial network and security foundation.

However, despite their critical role in modern manufacturing, many industrial networks have been built over time in an ad-hoc manner without regard to a consistent architecture. This has led to a patchwork of solutions for connectivity, mobility, visibility, security, and remote access, leading to unnecessary hardware deluge, increased complexity, and higher costs.

Key pillars of a robust foundation

To ensure success of their Industry 4.0 initiatives, manufacturers must evaluate the strength of their networking foundation, and invest strategically to buttress it so that they can focus on growth initiatives and not worry about network performance and security breaches.

Let us consider the key pillars of such a foundation:

A high-performance network

  1. A network that gives you the freedom to easily add, remove, or modify network devices, create blueprints to easily deploy new production lines, and offer deterministic performance to support the latest software innovations.
  2. Secure and seamless communication channels between the industrial and enterprise networks for access to advanced analytical applications for data-driven decision-making.
  3. High-speed low-latency mobility solutions that offer a choice of wireless connectivity technologies that work best for your factory use cases.

Comprehensive visibility and security

  1. Security functions such as deep visibility into all connected assets, traffic, and security vulnerabilities, as well as segmentation capabilities to carve your production processes into zones and conduits to control traffic flows and limit malware spread.
  2. A secure remote access capability that gives your staff, vendors, and contractors the ability to monitor, maintain, and manage your production assets without costly site visits particularly for remote locations.

Building a strong networking foundation

A high-performance, resilient, scalable, flexible, and deterministic network is the key first step in building the foundation. Such a network should bring different connectivity technologies including wired and a choice of wireless solutions so operations can choose the best technology that fits each of their use cases. Besides reliable and assured connectivity, the network can deliver the following benefits:

Scalability and flexibility

Bring new machinery online and build entirely new production lines quickly, or reconfigure and reassign existing assets to new tasks, with a managed automated network that can be expanded with ease.

No compromise mobility

Choose the best high-speed, low-latency wireless technology including Wi-Fi 6/6E, Cisco Ultra Reliable Wireless Backhaul (Cisco URWB), and Private 5G for factory mobility use cases, knowing that you may need more than one technology to address all your use cases effectively.

Data-driven decision making

Integrate AI/ML assisted analytical applications with your production processes with a dependable and secure connection from your operations to the cloud. Such applications can help optimize processes, improve product quality, and assist in preventive and predictive asset maintenance.

Control systems virtualization

Evolve your operations by replacing discrete control systems hardware with software running in virtual machines. Such a replacement adds to the flexibility and resiliency of operations. Read our article: Next big thing in smart factories? Control systems virtualization.

Unifying visibility and security with the network

Factory networks can be built with single-function solutions from different vendors. But such a patchwork can be very complex, require extra hardware resources, and difficult and expensive to scale, manage, and maintain as your requirements grow and evolve.

A better solution is to utilize the network devices themselves to provide visibility, segmentation, and zero-trust network access (ZTNA) functions. Edge compute capability in modern networking equipment allows running these functions as embedded software applications within them. Embedding these functions avoids the need for separate dedicated appliances, making the overall architecture simpler, more scalable, and more secure.

Figure 1: Cisco industrial networking solution eliminates single-point solutions in favor of a converged architecture.

Figure 1: Cisco industrial networking solution eliminates single-point solutions in favor of a converged architecture.

Such a unified architecture brings the following benefits to manufacturing operations:


Make deployments simpler by eliminating point solutions including servers for visibility and data extraction, firewalls and complex ACLs for segmentation, and VPN aggregators and jump servers for remote access.

Comprehensive cybersecurity

Shore up defenses and detect any breaches faster with increased visibility into connected assets, traffic flows, security vulnerabilities and continuous monitoring. Automated and segmented segmentation contains breaches to a small section of operations and prevents their spread. Moreover, removal of unnecessary appliances from security operations decreases the attack surface and further improves protection.

Secure remote operations

Increase control, offer least privileged access, and reduce site visit costs, with a simple to install and scale zero-trust network access solution without VPN or jump servers, with a zero-trust network access (ZTNA) gateway built into the network.

A blueprint for a strong networking foundation

A simplified reference architecture, as shown in Figure 3, overlays the typical devices, applications, network infrastructure, and security technology onto the Purdue model to give context to the design of such a converged industrial network.

Figure 3: A reference converged industrial networking and security architecture.

Figure 3: A reference converged industrial networking and security architecture.

The Cell/Area Zone consist of the network that connects sensors, actuators, drives, controllers, robots, machines, and any other IACS devices that need to communicate in real-time and consists of both wired and wireless technologies.

The Operations Zone incorporates all the key applications and functions that support the production facility, including those for visualization, network control, and manufacturing support.

The Industrial Demilitarized Zone (iDMZ) separates the industrial and enterprise zones ensuring that the industrial zone is not impacted by any outside influences. Network access is not permitted directly between the enterprise and the plant and the IDMZ allows the secure transport of data between the industrial network and applications in the enterprise zone and the cloud.

Start laying your smart factory foundation today

Far from being a futuristic concept, the unified security, mobility, cloud, and networking architecture as described above is helping manufacturers evolve their production today. Cisco provides a library of reference network architectures that are tested and validated for specific needs for industries, so you can use the latest advances in IT networking to securely digitize operations and benefit from today’s industrial automation challenges.

To learn more about Cisco’s Industrial IoT solutions for manufacturing, schedule a free, no obligation, consultation with one of our experts, or see how our products and solutions can work for you.

Cisco is proud to present and demonstrate our Industrial IoT solutions for manufacturing at Hannover Messe, 2024. Planning to be there? You can find us at Stand F18, Hall 15.

Or, be our guest and get your free pass to the fair.

Author: Vivek Bhargava, Product Marketing Manager, Cisco