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Cisco toughens up its switches

The network gear maker's new factory-floor Ethernet switch is a tough cookie--it can be shaken by a paint mixer and still stream video.

Cisco Systems on Monday will introduce networking equipment for the factory floor, a hot and jarring world far removed from the air-conditioned rooms where Cisco switches and routers usually reside.

The number of automated devices populating factory floors grows by about 60 percent every year, and each new one needs to be connected to a computer. Robotic arms started replacing human arms on conveyor lines in the late 1990s, but at that time Cisco and other major networking equipment makers were more focused on supplying equipment to the then-booming Internet industry.

Now Cisco is taking to the factory floor, where any of its current line-up of routers and switches to link electronic devices would be unlikely to survive. On Monday, it will begin selling the Catalyst 2955 line of switches, which have vents to dissipate the potentially system-crashing heat of a "factory floor in Georgia in summer," said Cisco Vice President Larry Birenbaum.

"This clearly benefits the manufacturing world a lot," Birenbaum said. "There will be networking in manufacturing--it's just a matter of when."

The Catalyst 2955 switches, which cost between $2,100 and $3,600 each, can take a beating that would send a more gentle switch to the junkyard. Birenbaum said a Catalyst 2955 was put into the same violently shaking machines used to mix paint. It was able to direct a video to a nearby computer while vibrating at a few hundred times a second, he said.

"It's cute as a button," he added.

Cisco will be by far the largest networking maker to specialize in networking equipment for the inhospitable world of a factory floor. Before it entered the niche, Hirschmann Electronics and "other companies you'd need a magnifying glass to find" were the main suppliers of the rugged networking gear, said Harry Forbes, a manufacturing analyst with ARC Advisory Group.

Cisco sells more routers and switches--used to direct Internet traffic--than any other company. But new manufacturers selling cheaper equipment have recently come on the scene, and analysts have said they believe the San Jose, Calif.-based server and router maker will have to take steps to deal with the lower-priced competition.

Forbes believes manufacturers will likely take to the new Cisco gear, because it is more sophisticated than what's in use now. But it will be adopted at a slow pace, he predicted. Manufacturers replace their production line equipment every six to eight years, he said.

"The factory needs this stuff because what they've been getting so far has been from niche suppliers," he said.