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EtherCat targets factory-level communications

17 December, 2009

EtherCat is staking a claim to become a factory-wide communications network, in addition to its existing role of providing machine-level communications. The EtherCat Technology Group (ETG) has enhanced the EtherCat specification so that it now supports Ethernet communications between control systems, as well as with supervisory systems. The announcement comes as an analyst forecasts that EtherCat will become the world’s leading industrial Ethernet protocol by 2013.

The new EtherCat Automation Protocol (EAP) is said to simplify the access of data from field devices at the sensor/actuator level, as well as supporting the integration of wireless devices. It allows parameter communication between control systems as well as routing across system boundaries. EAP also includes uniform diagnostic and configuration interfaces.

The extended protocol can be used in switch-based Ethernet topologies as well as via wireless Ethernet. Process data is communicated in a similar way to network variables, either cyclically or event-driven. The original EtherCAT Device Protocol and the new EAP use the same data structures and allow vertical integration with supervisory control systems and networked controllers.

It has taken the ETG less than a year to develop EAP, whose specification is being published in January 2010. While EAP handles communications in the millisecond range at the control level and between control systems, the device-level protocol handles I/O and motion control communications in the microsecond range.

The ETG now comprises around 1,200 members, more than 300 of whom have joined in the past year. Although most ETG members are based in Germany, where the protocol originated, ETG now has members in 48 countries, including 270 in Asia.

In 2008, EtherCat accounted for 18% of the industrial Ethernet market, with around five million nodes installed, putting it behind Ethernet/IP on 33% and Profinet on 27%. But according to a forecast by BPA Consulting, EtherCat will take the lead by 2013 with 16 million nodes installed, giving it 25% of the market, ahead of Profinet on 21% and Ethernet/IP on 20%.

Nearly 60 suppliers are already shipping EtherCat servo drives or have announced plans to do so – more than twice as many as the nearest rival, Ethernet/IP. And more than 70 vendors are offering EtherCat master devices such as PLCs, embedded controllers and PC-based controls.

On its stand at the recent SPS/IPC/Drives show, the ETG hosted a multi-vendor demonstration of 30 EtherCat-compatible drives from 20 vendors operating synchronously in one EtherCat network. Another demo linked control systems from 17 vendors.

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