Ensuring network availability and uptime in manufacturing

by Ande Hazard, VP, Manufacturing and Transportation Solutions, AT&T Business

The network is the nervous system for a manufacturing facility. It ensures that machines can communicate to other machines and keep production flowing. For this reason, protecting network availability is a priority for all manufacturers. This includes maximizing uptime, minimizing downtime, and protecting the data that the network transmits.

What happens when your IT network goes down? Well, that sound you would hear is the woosh of money quickly flowing out the door—money from lost production, lost revenue, and even the company’s reputation. However, there are steps you can take to temper this risk. Let’s take a look at the challenge of network availability, how connectivity and emerging tech is helping address this challenge, and the steps you can take to improve your uptime.

The costs of network downtime to manufacturing

Network downtime is a costly problem for manufacturers. When the downtime is planned, the company can mitigate these costs during a time when they’ll have the least impact on the business. Unplanned downtime, though? Those costs are much harder to control and can vary significantly depending on the variables like the size of the company and what’s being manufactured.

Almost a decade ago, Gartner estimated that each minute of downtime costs approximately $5,600.1 This has continued to be an accepted average, however, considering how costs, inflation, and other associated factors have risen so much, it’s not a stretch to imagine that the impact of losing network availability is much higher today, especially for large organizations.

Why is this cost so high? The impact happens across the business, including with partners and customers:

  1. Lost revenue. When IT systems are down, businesses may experience a direct loss in sales or income, especially if they rely on online transactions, real-time services, or automated processes. The longer the downtime, the greater the potential revenue loss.
  2. Lost productivity. Employees may be unable to access necessary systems, data, or tools during downtime, leading to a drop in overall productivity. This can cause delays in project completion, missed deadlines, and additional labor costs to catch up on work once systems are back online.
  3. Recovery costs. Restoring IT systems and data after an outage can be expensive, particularly if specialized resources, additional labor, or third-party services are required. This may include data recovery, system repairs, or even replacement of damaged hardware.
  4. Compliance and legal costs. IT network downtime can lead to regulatory penalties or legal liabilities. Not meeting contractual obligations, industry standards, or data protection regulations can be factors. This can add to the overall cost of downtime and may have long-term consequences for the business.
  5. Lost opportunities. During downtime, companies may miss new business opportunities, such as time-sensitive deals, partnerships, or market developments. This can result in lost competitive advantage and potential long-term revenue loss.
  6. Reputation damage. Extended or frequent IT network outages can harm a company's reputation, leading to a loss of customer trust and loyalty. This may result in lost customers and difficulty attracting new clients in the long term.
  7. Employee morale. Frequent or extended IT network downtime can negatively impact employee morale and job satisfaction, leading to higher turnover rates and increased recruitment and training costs.

A lack of network availability has more than a ripple effect across the business, it’s a wave that may be exceedingly difficult to recover from.

Most IT departments don’t want to find out that their network is down from internal users. Not only is that too late, but it can lead to frustration and slow down productivity. IT needs to be the first to know about any network issues so they can act before the rest of the business is affected. Ensuring a reliable and well-monitored network infrastructure is crucial for maintaining smooth business operations.

How much uptime does your network need?

So, what’s the ideal amount of network uptime then? The obvious answer is as close to 100% as possible. Most businesses aim for a minimum of 99.9% uptime, which translates to about 8.76 hours of downtime per year. This level of uptime is considered acceptable for most business operations. However, the specific requirement may vary depending on the industry, the nature of the business, and the criticality of the communications network for its operations. Because of the highly-connected nature of manufacturing, this high uptime is needed.

Building on highly available networks for the smart factory

Through Industry 4.0, the manufacturing industry saw a shift from simply connecting Programmable logic Controllers (PLCs) to Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition or Human-Machine Interface (HMIs). It expanded to include worker safety, video intelligence, autonomous guided vehicles (AGVs), robotics, and more. And now, Industry 5.0 is on the horizon, which will be led by the adoption of artificial intelligence (AI), and AI is even more dependent on highly available network connectivity.

Building digital transformation through highly available networks is essential to achieve 99.99% uptime or better for smart factories. Manufacturers need network reliability, which means a new standard for networking that delivers three important factors that improves service quality overall:

  • Network intelligence. Efficient and agile traffic routing of data, bandwidth usage, and Network Intelligence Forecasting, which analyzes the performance of data across a network.
  • Network resilience. Improved connectivity through fiber-optic cables, which reduces outages, broadens bandwidth, and is more secure.
  • Network convergence. Bringing traffic such as data, voice, video, and images onto a single network, which includes wireless services, business Wi-Fi, and Ethernet.

Together these factors enable flexibility, resiliency, and availability delivered as uptime. Smart factories will continue to increasingly rely on progressive connectivity solutions such as fiber-based networks and 5G services. Take it a step further. Combining fiber and 5G accelerates digital transformation to get more out of the Internet of Things (IoT),which allows for more opportunities to improve safety, efficiency, productivity, and collect data to make smarter decisions for the business.

Add to that, cloud connectivity for the adoption of “as a service” models. These not only enable a shift from capital expenditures to operational expenditure for better budget control, but they also help the business move from hardware to software, which can reduce carbon emissions to improve business sustainability. Even better, it can scale as your business grows and adopts emerging technologies like AI.

Let’s take a look at why fiber internet, 5G, and IoT are important to uptime and productivity in the smart factory:

  1. Fiber connectivity. The heart of network modernization is fiber. High-speed fiber-optic networks facilitate the transfer of large volumes of data at lightning-fast speeds. In smart factories, this enables seamless communication between machines, sensors, and control systems, allowing for real-time monitoring and optimization of processes.
  2. Fiber connectivity also supports high-quality video streaming for remote monitoring and maintenance, improving overall factory efficiency. Additionally, fiber-optic networks are less susceptible to electromagnetic interference, ensuring reliable and stable connections in industrial environments with heavy machinery.
  3. 5G. The fifth-generation mobile network offers low latency, high bandwidth, and increased device connectivity capabilities. It enables near real-time data exchange and remote control of machinery, laying the foundation for Industry 4.0 applications such as autonomous vehicles, robotics, and augmented reality.
  4. 5G also supports the deployment of edge computing, which reduces response times and enhances decision-making processes. Furthermore, 5G enables network slicing, allowing manufacturers to create virtual networks tailored to specific needs, ensuring optimal performance and resource allocation.
  5. IoT. The Internet of Things (IoT) connects devices, machines, and sensors, enabling them to share data and collaborate on tasks. IoT plays a vital role in smart factories by providing real-time insights, optimizing production processes, and reducing downtime.
  6. With IoT, predictive maintenance becomes possible, allowing for timely identification of potential issues and reducing the need for reactive repairs. IoT also enables more efficient energy management, reducing the overall carbon footprint and contributing to sustainability goals.

Adopting industry standards and protocols are important, however, to be progressive in moving products to market, being more competitive, and meeting fluctuating consumer demand, simply meeting industry standards isn’t enough. Manufacturers are learning that to keep pace with changes in the market, including supply chain challenges and consumer needs, they have to reach beyond basic standards, stay innovative, and promote seamless communication and integration across the entire manufacturing ecosystem through the benefits of connectivity and emerging tech that need the network to be up and running to function.

Benefits of network availability in the smart factory

Fiber connectivity delivers network availability, 5G expands network capabilities, and IoT provides unprecedented opportunities for data. Together, there are even more benefits through these smart factory technologies.

  1. Enhanced automation. With the combination of high-speed communication networks and IoT, smart factories can implement advanced automation systems that can manage complex tasks with minimal human intervention. These systems can adapt to changing production requirements and optimize workflows, leading to increased efficiency and reduced production costs.
  2. Improved quality control. Real-time data collection and analysis through connected sensors and devices enable manufacturers to monitor product quality at every stage of the production process. This helps in identifying defects early on and taking corrective actions, ensuring higher product quality and reducing waste.
  3. Supply chain optimization. The integration of these technologies allows manufacturers to gain better visibility into their supply chains, enabling them to track the movement of raw materials, components, and finished products. This increased transparency allows manufacturers to optimize inventory levels, reduce lead times, and improve order accuracy, leading to a more efficient and agile supply chain.
  4. Customization and personalization. Advanced communication networks and IoT devices enable manufacturers to gather data on customer preferences and needs. This data can be used to produce customized products tailored to individual customer requirements, resulting in better customer satisfaction and increased loyalty.
  5. Enhanced worker safety. The integration of advanced communication networks, IoT devices, and real-time monitoring systems allows manufacturers to create safer working environments by identifying potential hazards and preventing accidents. Additionally, the use of robotics and automation can reduce the need for workers to perform dangerous or repetitive tasks, further contributing to worker safety.
  6. Better decision-making. Real-time data from IoT devices and sensors, combined with advanced analytics, can provide valuable insights into various aspects of the manufacturing process. Decision-makers can use this information to identify areas for improvement, optimize resource allocation, and develop more effective strategies for growth and innovation.

The integration of highly available networks and technologies like 5G, fiber connectivity, and IoT is revolutionizing the manufacturing industry. Capitalizing on these benefits is making the factory floor more agile, efficient, productive. However, there can be a wrench in access to these benefits: cyber threats to the network.

A quick look at network availability and network security

As technology has advanced, so have threats to the data that networks carry. Cybercriminals have been a part of the network landscape since the early days of online connectivity. They’ve recognized the rich opportunities that are in manufacturing industry data.

Because smart factories reliant on network connectivity, having robust cybersecurity measures in place is essential. The volume of data in manufacturing includes a rich number of endpoints that connect the factory inside and out. Each endpoint can be an entry point into the network and jeopardize not only data, but the network availability itself. For example, cybercriminals may use a ransomware attack to take production offline.

Investing in cybersecurity solutions such as firewalls, intrusion detection systems, and secure communication protocols helps protect sensitive data and prevent unauthorized access to critical systems. Regular security audits, employee training and compliance, and updating software and firmware also contribute to a secure factory environment. In addition, implementing multi-factor authentication, data encryption, and network segmentation can further strengthen the security of smart factories.

These are all important measures, however, when there’s a missed tool, application, or software update, the protection is vulnerable. Network downtime, or the lack of network availability mentioned earlier goes even farther. It also means unplanned factory downtime, which costs industrial manufacturers an estimated $50 billion a year.2

To address these vulnerabilities and stay ahead of cybercriminals, now network security—that is, security built into the network—is the next evolution in cybersecurity. This type of security, which is on the horizon as a critical necessity for all businesses, integrates essential elements such as firewalls into the network itself leaving less room for missed updates and errors.

How to improve network availability

There are more methods today to help manufacturers ensure constancy for reliable network availability. Modernizing the network through fiber connectivity and 5G delivers that reliability, plus the resilience and security needed. It lays the foundation for not only IoT and cloud connectivity, but the adoption of AI and other emerging tech for better network uptime and essential operations needs such as predictive maintenance, onsite safety, and improved overall productivity.

Ensuring a reliable and robust communications network is an essential investment for manufacturers looking to stay competitive in the ever-evolving global market. The first step is to understand the current capacity and identify any limitations of your network today.

High-priority sites—areas of the business where network availability is particularly critical—have even more at stake if the network is down. Having a multi-layered disaster recovery strategy that combines various technologies and approaches can reduce network vulnerabilities. Layers include active or failover connections, which enable businesses to maintain continuous network connectivity, even in the event of an outage or hardware failure.

Additionally, diverse fiber paths provide redundancy and protection against outages, minimizing the risk of downtime caused by a single point of failure. So, how do you know if you need to take action to build these protections?

First, meet with your IT team to uncover challenges. These include day-to-day issues, as well as those that may seem to be anomalies, but might be indicators for larger issues. In this assessment, explore possible security gaps in the network and if updates have ever been delayed or missed. In other words, look at your network from every angle.

Next, consult with an expert who knows business who can work with your IT team to evaluate this assessment. Gain an objective view of potential vulnerabilities to network availability. Then you can create a roadmap to prioritize what needs to be addressed today for better network availability and what can be implemented in the future.

We’re in a new era of opportunity. With today’s technology, improving the uptime of your network is easier than ever. Through a reliable network that keeps the nervous system of your factory and the rest of your business connected, you can better meet the needs of your customers.

AT&T Business can help enhance customers' visibility into near real-time network availability, providing an invaluable tool for businesses to stay informed and ahead of potential issues. By offering cutting-edge monitoring and reporting tools, we enable IT departments to proactively detect and address network problems before they escalate and affect end-users. This empowers businesses to maintain a high level of network performance and minimize downtime, leading to improved productivity and user satisfaction.

Why AT&T Business?

See how ultra-fast, reliable fiber and 5G connectivity protected by built-in security can help you connect your factory environment and enable digital transformation. Let our experts collaborate with you to simplify your supply chain and make your business more resilient. Welcome to a new standard for networking.

Learn more about AT&T Business manufacturing solutions or contact your AT&T Business representative to connect with an expert who knows business.

1Andrew Lerner, “The Cost of Downtime,” Gartner, July 16, 2014, https://blogs.gartner.com/andrew-lerner/2014/07/16/the-cost-of-downtime/.

2Scott Dowell, “Maintenance Strategies for Avoiding Unplanned Downtime,” Manufacturing.net, November 11, 2022, https://www.manufacturing.net/operations/blog/22539445/maintenance-strategies-for-avoiding-unplanned-downtime.