This means that, for example, a programmable logic controller (PLC) based in Munich is capable of communicating simply and effectively with automated machinery in Marseille, Paris and Brussels. This way of working opens the door to significant cost and time savings. IT technologies for this sort of thing have tended to originate in the office world. While it has taken longer for such solutions to penetrate the world of industrial automation, the need for them has been just as acute. Europe's share of the automation sector, which operates in a highly competitive globalised market, was estimated in 2005 at 25 % with regard to application and 32 % with regard to production of automation equipment. This suggests an exported surplus of European automation products of 7 %, underlining Europe's leadership. Europe cannot afford to forfeit its dominant market position because of a 'technology lag'. As a consequence, a four-year EUR 11.8 million EU-funded project was launched in 2005 to specifically address this issue. The objective of 'Virtual automation networks' (VAN) was to adopt, modify and extend common office/IT solutions to the industrial sphere in order to support knowledge-based, intelligent and agile manufacturing. The project partners, led by Dr Axel Klostermeyer, director of strategic projects & pricing, industrial communication at Siemens, were confident from the outset that the project would strengthen and consolidate European automation's global position by providing much-needed solutions. Raiding the standard The VAN project focused on an important part of a flexible manufacturing automation scheme: the communication, both over a short and long distance, between different automation functions. The project set out to provide not only innovative solutions to this issue, but also to establish new standards dedicated to industrial environments, and to essentially fill the existing gap between office technologies and industrial automation technology. 'In the 1990s, fieldbuses began to be used as a means of communication, to link one machine to another,' explains Dr Klostermeyer. 'They were a means of sending signals from one controller to another.' The Ethernet - the collective term for frame-based computer networking technologies for local area networks (LANs) - is used extensively in office environments, but its application in industry has been more limited. 'The issue was that several different standards were being used in factories,' stresses Dr Klostermeyer. 'However, around the year 2000, a trend began to emerge among several companies who were trying to use the ethernet also for industrial communication on the field level. With this came certain issues, such as security and real-time operation. This project emerged out of this need.' The project partners believed that a breakthrough could be achieved through integrating a number of network concepts together, to form an applicable virtual automation network, which could be used in industrial automation. First of all, an independent analysis and survey of current needs was carried out. Implementation challenges and the possibility of using some current state-of-the-art wireless communication technologies were then addressed. 'We started from the point of view that the ethernet is widely used in the office; the main idea was to use this IT technology for industrial communication.' Two pilot tests were carried out. A biogas company with several separate plants in eastern Germany was used to see if the project could be implemented in the processing sector, while a manufacturing firm with a control centre in Germany and an automated robotic plant in Italy was used to trial the project in the manufacturing sector. Fully automated The VAN project has made a significant contribution to the European automation industry through the development of an open platform that integrates networks for fast and flexible manufacturing. This platform enables communication between industrial applications and devices in a transparent, flexible and fast-to-configure way: perfect for the industrial environment. In addition, the system enables remotely distributed applications to find each other by using VAN name addressing and routing, and to establish secure, safe and real-time connections over wired and wireless networks communicating as if they were in the same LAN. In addition, the introduction and modification of originally office-oriented networks - such as ethernet and WLAN - allows the integration of both office and automation domains within a company, along with remote communication in distributed environments (i.e. plants located in different locations). This last feature allows engineering tasks to be performed remotely, enabling engineers to configure automation devices and systems without necessarily having to know the technology that is being used. 'The reason we called the project a "virtual automation network" was that it was virtual; it looks like it is one network, when in fact it is a combination of several,' explains Dr Klostermeyer. And while the project team didn't have to reinvent everything - they started from the already existing Profinet open industrial ethernet standard (IEC61158 - Type10) for example - the research represents a major step forward in industrial automation technology. 'There are still smaller issues to be solved but from a research point of view a big step has been made, and this technology is now well-established,' says Dr Klostermeyer. It is now more a question of development than research. Several things we invented during this project are now being turned into products.' VAN project (http://www.van-eu.eu) which was completed in October 2009, was an integrated project funded by the European Commission under the 'Information society technology' (IST) priority within the Sixth Framework Programme. The consortium consisted of 14 partners from four countries.