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EtherCAT at cutting edge of new technology upgrades in automation

With automation now heading into a new phase of growth due to Industry 4.0 and the Internet of Things (IoT), speed is a key ingredient. Having a fieldbus system that can keep up is essential. PACE explains.

Beckhoff spent the last two weeks in October travelling around Australia and New Zealand with a roadshow explaining how its EtherCAT fieldbus system fits into the ever-changing world of industrial automation.

On hand was the EtherCAT Technology Group’s (ETG) executive director Martin Rostan, who flew in from Germany to take the reins of the presentations.

Rostan is aware that Ethernet technology is moving into a new phase as the likes of the Internet of Things (IoT) and Industry 4.0 require better technologies that need to communicate with each other, at speed, and be flexible enough to meet the varying criteria of many different manufacturing enterprises.

“Industry 4.0 is an initiative by the German Government with the overall goal of bringing manufacturing back to Germany,” said Rostan. “Manufacturing has gone east – Southeast Asia and China. [Chinese company] Foxconn makes the iPhone while 99 per cent of the world’s motherboards are coming out of China or Taiwan. The goal of Industry 4.0 is to make production more flexible, dynamic and transparent, with the ability to do smaller lot sizes with a more quality and in a low-cost way. So, we can make customised products from which makes them uneconomic to produce in Asia due to distance. This is the leverage on how to get production to a high-wage country like Germany.

“It can be seen as a convergence of automation and IT and bringing both worlds together. From our point of view, there is a lot of communication with Industry 4.0 and the IoT and that is the main driving factor,” said Rostan. “Communications is a prerequisite for bringing this all together. EtherCAT is the fieldbus that has outstanding real-time capabilities with the OPC UA [Open Platform Communications – Unified Architecture] and is a good enhancement as a complementary technology.”

Rostan sees both technologies complementing each other and not competitors. That is why Beckhoff entered into a MoU with the OPC Foundation and both organisations agreed that they won’t compete but cooperate and will come up with common interfaces, on which they are currently working.

“If we look at the communication requirements of IoT and Industry 4.0, we need the short cycle times determined within the machine control layout,” said Rostan. “We need the cyclic data transfer on the horizontal level and we need the connectivity towards SCADA systems and cloud- based technology. And the associated technologies are the EtherCAT device protocol and the EtherCAT automation protocol for the horizontal communication between machine controllers in the future enhanced by TSN (time sensitive networking).

“But if we talk to a non-EtherCAT system, we will also be OPC UA pub/sub or DA but predominately pub/sub, the latest edition to the OPC UA portfolio. Also, OPC is the technology of choice for connectivity. EtherCAT is not just sitting and waiting for those to evolve, we are participating and contributing actively with the OPC committees.”

And how did the event turn out? Very well, according to Australasian managing director Steven Sischy.

“There has been a lot of questions, which is what we wanted,” said Sischy. “A lot of customers who are using the technology may not understand some of the benefits. This event brings these benefits to the foreground.

“It created a platform to engage customers,” he said. “This kind event allows them to see a new application and brings out a new idea and then ask themselves – ‘Could I apply this to my application?’” said Sischy.

Since its inception in 2004, EtherCAT has one distinct advantage over a lot of its competition. Something that is not lost on Sischy.

“One of EtherCAT’s main benefits is that it is still version one and we haven’t changed formats, which is a massive thing,” said Sischy. “We see with some of our competitors that if they have a second version, then it is not compatible with version one and that poses a problem. Whereas customers who started off in 2004 with EtherCAT there are not such problems. The technology hasn’t changed. Most of the new features are added into the master, not the slave. If it is Beckhoff hardware, all we do is update the firmware on the device. So we have the ability to change it from when it was originally released and bring it right up to date.

“The only thing we have to think about are the EtherCAT slave identifiers, which is a slave definition,” said Sischy. “This tells the master what the device is and this is how to deal with it. There is a description on how to deal with a device, which means the slave description file needs to be updated. For that you can go directly to the EtherCAT website and say that you want to update my device descriptions and manually download the device description and update the file. And then, you are up to date.”

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