Electronic Access Control for Manufacturing Plants

Sept. 5, 2022
Installing an EAC system in a manufacturing facility requires a different set of considerations.

In today’s manufacturing facilities, wired Ethernet security networks and electronic access control (EAC) are becoming as common as they are in office and residential settings. Network-based electronic locks provide several layers of utility in such applications, including:

  • Fast installation
  • More-affordable maintenance and upgrades
  • Shared access to real-time ingress and egress data
  • Better communication between shop-floor systems and the top office
  • Customized access to sensitive areas or special equipment

However, EAC and network installation projects in manufacturing plants face challenges that don’t exist in offices and homes. Imperfect or inadequate network installations in a working plant can cause significant downtime as well as system errors — both of which cut into the profit margin.

In this article, we’ll identify some of the unique problems faced by installers in these working facilities, as well as the solutions that security pros use to solve them.

Safety First

Manufacturing plants are much more hazardous than other types of structures. High-voltage wires, obstructions, heavy-duty equipment and constantly moving machinery, such as forklifts or conveyor belts, all contribute hazards of their own. So, maintaining safety while working in this environment is the No. 1 concern, particularly when the installation team uses a lift or a ladder.

To keep themselves and plant employees safe, security pros have to be obsessive about safety procedures. The following should be planned for ahead of time and kept in mind at all times while working at a manufacturing facility:

  • Identify high-voltage wires, and depower if necessary.
  • Use high-visibility PPE or cones to demarcate an installation space.
  • Wear snug-fitting clothing that won’t be snagged or caught in moving parts.
  • Be aware of moving machinery or forklift pass-throughs at all times.
  • Keep installation equipment or tools organized and safely contained out of walkways and pass-throughs.
  • Schedule work at off-peak times when fewer workers are present.

Robust Hardware

Industrial-grade facilities require industrial-grade Ethernet and access control hardware. Any network elements in a manufacturing environment have to withstand the following:

  • High levels of heat or cold
  • Ultraviolet radiation from sunlight exposure
  • Oil or chemical contaminants
  • Moisture
  • Compression and vibrations from machinery
  • Electromagnetic or radio-frequency spikes

In facilities that rely on a wired network for system automation as well as crucial internal and external EAC, degraded components can result in anything from system errors all the way up to catastrophic system failure and inoperable locking mechanisms. Any of these problems can lead to significant downtime for the facility, which means significant profit loss, so ruggedized, hard-wearing cables and locking components are a must. Industrial-grade hardware and electronics should have a lifespan between 10 and 30 years, commensurate with most other manufacturing hardware.

Network and EAC components, such as locking mechanisms or card readers also have to be rugged enough to handle being on the shop floor where vibrations and mechanical stressors could put a regular lock out of commission.

For exposed parts of the locking mechanism, such as a gatebox or card reader, choose components that have Ingress Progression (IP) ratings that accurately reflect the installation setting, whether they must be resistant against dust, solid objects, water spray or total immersion.

Another consideration for locks is that they can handle doors and gates that are heavy-duty and correspondingly heavyweight. When you add a lock to an interior or exterior door or gate, make sure that the holding power of the lock meets or exceeds the weight of the door or gate. These locks will be able to hold these heavy doors closed, and they come with toughened anchor points to secure the mechanism to the door material without risk of failure.

Also, request-to-exit (REX) buttons are an important feature for interior doors or gates in an industrial facility. They simplify egress from enclosed areas on the shop floor, which eliminates the necessity for credential readers on both sides of a door. They also increase safety by ensuring that personnel never are locked irreversibly into an enclosed area.

Finally, in noisy or fast-paced industrial environments, visual indicators have value, which is why many of these environments have an abundance of signage and color-coded equipment. You can add the same visual input features to your locks by adding visual annunciator accessories, which use a simple green-red light indicator to show that the lock is open or secure.

This makes lock operation for employees much simpler, because they have to wait only for a light to change to know a lock is disengaged instead of trying to hear the bolt move over ambient noise or manually testing the door. Annunciators also are helpful for overall facility security, because they make it possible for security personnel to tell at a glance whether a door or gate is locked.

Cable News

Even under the industrial-grade hardware umbrella, some cables are specialized further to specific settings and applications. Consider the following options for a manufacturing application:

  • Oil- and UV-resistant Cat-6 cable
  • Indoor/outdoor-rated fiber-optic cable that has dielectric insulation to resist frequency spikes and waterproof jacketing to repel moisture
  • Low-smoke/zero-halogen (LSZH) cables, which are safer in potentially fire-prone settings because of their low toxin output when burned. These are legally mandated in many manufacturing settings.
  • Burial and waterblocked cables for underground installation
  • Armored cable for particularly extreme conditions

It’s important for security pros to tailor their choice of cable and connectivity components with the situation at hand. For example, heavy-duty Cat-6 cable that’s jacketed to exclude oil and UV rays is ideal for outdoor EAC applications, where motor oil and sun exposure are nearly constant. LSZH cable wouldn’t be necessary in this case, but credential or biometric readers that include shielding against electromagnetic or radio frequencies could be, depending on the nature of the nearest machinery.

A particular concern in manufacturing facilities is the omnipresence of interior or exterior doors that are set in concrete walls. Unlike other walls, concrete walls aren’t hollow, so to install any necessary cabling, the concrete must be cored or a conduit put in place.

If the hole has to be large to accommodate multiple cables, the coring process requires special core drills and drilling rigs, as well as a water source, which is fed over the drilling point to reduce heat and friction. Smaller holes can be drilled by hand.

If a conduit is a better solution for a given door, that conduit has to be bent properly and attached to the wall in a way that’s tamper-proof and impact-resistant. Often, the best way to accomplish this is to position conduits over the door, where interference from humans or moving equipment is unlikely.

Coordination Counts

To implement a successful, efficient installation, security pros must stay in constant communication with their point of contact within a manufacturing facility to confirm the timing and execution of the project.

Manufacturing facilities also are unique in their hours of operation. Many plants run longer shifts than offices and businesses, and some even operate around the clock. If plant managers have to shut down machinery or limit production to accommodate security installation, every minute of downtime means profit loss, so it must be minimized in every way possible.

During EAC installation, doors and gates might be stuck open or stuck closed for the duration of the project, which also can bring work to a standstill. The opposite also might happen: When a large order comes into a manufacturing plant, the plant managers might prioritize production for that order over and above any scheduled installation or maintenance.

So, in addition to safety considerations and appropriate hardware selections, network installers must work closely with their point of contact or plant manager to identify the best time for an installation to take place. Often, the best times for network installers and plant managers are “off hours,” when the plant is all or mostly shut down, or during the graveyard shift, when personnel are fewer and less equipment is in use. This allows installation crews to work with fewer hindrances and allows the plant to maintain its normal production schedule with no loss or reduced loss from downtime.

Patrick Chown is the CEO of Safe and Sound Security in Walnut Creek, California. He also is owner and president of the network installation company, The Network Installers.