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EtherCat+power cable heralds ‘no-cabinet automation’

25 November, 2015

The German automation company Beckhoff, which developed the EtherCat communications system, has announced a new version that uses a single four-core cable to carry both the industrial Ethernet communications protocol and currents of up to 3A at present - and, later, up to 64A. The new EtherCat P system, unveiled at the SPS IPC Drives show in Germany, includes specially developed connectors, and compatible versions of devices such as remote I/O modules. Beckhoff says that the new system will cut component and installation costs and save space, potentially resulting in smaller machine footprints.

The new cable is the first stage of a planned “One Cable Automation” system that will include cables capable of carrying currents up to 64A and powering 600V drives. Beckhoff predicts that the high-current versions will pave the way to an era of automation without control cabinets. Small terminal boxes or automation components ranging from 24V sensors to 600V drives, will receive their control data and power via the integrated cables, helping to eliminate the need for large control and electrical cabinets.

EtherCat P allows direct forwarding of the power supply by daisy-chaining compatible devices. The current version integrates a 24V DC supply for slave devices with signals and data from connected sensors and actuators. It isolates the system and sensor supply from the peripheral voltage used for actuators, each capable of carrying up to 3A.

The new system retains all of the benefits of EtherCat, such as: a free choice of network topology; high transmission speeds; optimum bandwidth utilisation; telegram processing on-the-fly; precise synchronisation; and extensive diagnostics. The two types of current are injected directly into the wires of the 100Mbit/s cable, resulting in cost-effective, compact connections.

EtherCat P will allow the use of smaller, remote I/O stations located in terminal boxes, as well as decentralised I/O components. It will cover applications from the 24V I/O level to drives at 400V AC or 600V DC, and currents of up to 64A.

Initial EtherCat P enabled devices from Beckhoff include infrastructure components, I/O systems, cable sets and connectors. For example, the company's new EPP EtherCat P Box family comprises I/O devices for installation outside of electrical cabinets. The compact, robust IP 67 I/O modules handle signals ranging from standard digital I/O to complex analogue and measurement technologies. In addition, a scalable family of EtherCat P connectors, ranging in size from M8 to B36, has been developed to eliminate the possibility of incorrect connection to standard EtherCat slaves. Beckhoff says it is planning “a wide range” of infrastructure components in IP 20 and IP 67 ratings to support the new cable technology.

At present, there are no third-party suppliers supporting EtherCat P. Beckhoff’s managing director, Hans Beckhoff, points out that when his company launched EtherCat in 2003, there was little support from other suppliers. Now, the independent EtherCat Technology Group (ETG) is the world’s largest Industrial Ethernet organisation with 3,480 member companies, almost 200 of them producing EtherCat masters. “We can do it again in the same way,” he predicts. “The advantages [of EtherCat P] are so striking, that many of the EtherCat community will jump on the bandwagon.”

Beckhoff's EtherCat P portfolio will include devices such as I/O modules, as well as the cables and connectors

Beckhoff is offering the new technology to the ETG, which is now responsible for EtherCat and its standardisation. “It’s up to them whether they want to follow,” says Beckhoff, “but I’m optimistic.”

The ETG’s executive director Martin Rostan welcomes the EtherCat P announcement. He says that his members were not aware of the development before Beckhoff’s announcement at the SPS show, adding that they will probably receive full technical details in early 2016. He expects some ETG members to preview their first EtherCat P products at the Hannover Fair in Germany next April, with commercial availability following soon after.

Rostan emphasises that EtherCat P will not supersede the original version and that nothing will change in the EtherCat specification. Existing EtherCat masters will work with the new version. He expects EtherCat P to be used where its particular characteristics will be an advantage. “There is an opportunity to reach application fields for which EtherCat is not equipped,” he told Drives & Controls at the SPS show.

There are no plans yet to try to adopt EtherCat P as an IEC standard. If this does happen, the process will probably be guided by the ETG (as it did for the original EtherCat specification, which is now standardised in IEC 61158). Rostan reports that the process could take several years.




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