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EtherCAT is an Ethernet-based fieldbus system. EtherCAT handling is
straightforward and similar to a fieldbus given its flexible topology and
simple configuration. Moreover, since EtherCAT can be implemented cost
effectively, the system enables use in applications where fieldbus
networking was not previously an option.
ieldbuses have become a tried and tested component of
automation technology. It was fieldbus technology that enabled
the wide scale application of PC-based control systems. While
the performance of controller CPUs – particularly for Industrial PCs
– is increasing rapidly, conventional fieldbus systems tend to represent
bottlenecks that limit the performance which control systems can
An additional factor is the layered control architecture comprising
several subordinate (usually cyclic) systems: the actual control task,
the fieldbus system and perhaps local expansion busses within the I/O
system, or simply the local firmware cycle in the peripheral device.
Reaction times are typically three to five times higher than the controller
cycle time – an unsatisfactory solution (Fig. 1).
PLC Task
PLC Task
PLC Task
PLC Task
PLC Task
cations. If for example a drive cyclically sends 4 bytes of actual value
and status information receiving 4 bytes of command value and control
word information in response, a 100% bus load (i.e. with infinitely
short response time of the drive) represents a maximum attainable data
delivery rate of only 4/84, just 4.8%. At an average response time of
10µs, the rate drops to 1.9%.
These limitations apply to all real time Ethernet approaches that
send an Ethernet frame to each device (or expect a frame from each
device), irrespective of the protocols used within the Ethernet frame.
EtherCAT technology overcomes these inherent limitations since
the Ethernet packet is no longer received, interpreted and process data
then copied at every device. The EtherCAT slave devices read the data
addressed to them while the frame passes through the node. Input data
T mdv
Bus Cycle
Bus Cycle
Bus Cycle
Bus Cycle
Bus Cycle
Bus Cycle
Bus Cycle
best case reaction time
Ethernet HDR
Data 1
Data 2
Data n
worst case reaction time
(worst case)
(best case)
Tmdv : Master Processing Delay
TI/O : Local I/O UpdateTime (Firmware)
Fig. 1. Response times of conventional fieldbus systems
Above the fieldbus system level, i.e. for networking controllers,
Ethernet has already been the de facto network technology for some
time. However, its application at the drive or I/O level in areas that
were previously dominated by fieldbus systems is relatively new. Real
time capability with small data quantities dominates the requirements
for this type of application provided that the performance can be
delivered with cost effectiveness. EtherCAT meets these requirements
and at the same time makes internet technologies available at the I/O
Ethernet and real time capability
There are many different approaches that try and provide real time
capability for Ethernet. For example, the CSMA/CD media access
procedure is disabled via higher level protocol layers and replaced by
the time slice procedure or polling. Other propositions use special
switches that distribute Ethernet packets in a precisely controlled timely
manner. While these solutions may be able to transport data packets
quickly and accurately to the connected Ethernet nodes, the times
required for the redirection to the outputs or drive controllers, and the
time taken to read the input data strongly depend on the implementation.
If individual Ethernet frames are used for each device, the usable
data rate is very low in principle: The shortest Ethernet frame is 84
bytes long (including interpacket gap, IPG). This has bandwidth impli-
Logical Process image:z
Moving up to Industrial Ethernet:
The EtherCAT protocol
Ethernet Datagram 1… n
Ethernet Datagram 2
Ethernet Datagram n
Fig. 2. Insertion of process data into the datagram under EtherCAT
is similarly inserted while the telegram passes through (Fig. 2) delaying
the frames by only a few nanoseconds. Since an Ethernet frame
comprises the data of many devices both in send and receive direction,
the usable data rate increases to over 90%.
The full duplex features of 100BaseTX are fully used such that
effective data rates of 100Mbps (>90% of 2 x100Mbps) can be achieved
(see Fig. 3). The Ethernet protocol according to IEEE 802.3 remains
intact right up to the individual device and no sub-bus is required.
In order to meet the requirements
80-97 %
of a modular device like an
electronic terminal block, the
physical layer in the coupling device
can be converted from twisted pair
20-30 %
or optical fibre to LVDS (alterna30
tive standard Ethernet physical
2-5 %
layer5). A modular device can thus
Timeslicing Master Slave
be extended efficiently. Subsequent
From 2-bit
At 4-byte user data
conversion from the backplane
user data
zper note
per note
physical layer LVDS to the 100Base
TX physical layer is possible at any
Fig. 3. Comparison of bandwidth
time – as usual with Ethernet.
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The EtherCAT protocol…
The EtherCAT protocol
A special Ethertype optimised for process data is transported directly
within the Ethernet frame. It may consist of several EtherCAT
datagrams, each serving a particular memory area of the logical process
images that can be up to four gigabytes in size. The data sequence is
independent of the physical order of the Ethernet terminals in the
network; addressing can be in any order. Broadcast, Multicast and
communication between slaves are possible. Direct Ethernet frame
transfer is used in cases where maximum performance is required and
the EtherCAT components are operated in the same subnet as the
controller. However, EtherCAT applications are not limited to single
a subnet. EtherCAT UDP packages the EtherCAT protocol into
UDP/IP datagrams (Fig. 4). This enables any controller with an
Ethernet protocol stack to address EtherCAT systems.
MTU: max. 1514 Byte
48 Bit
48 Bit
16 Bit
16 Bit
Embedded in Standard Ethernet Frame
w. EtherType 88A4h
160 Bit
Ethernet H.
32 Bit
1...n EtherCAT
64 Bit
IP Header
Distributed clocks
Or: via UDP/IP
with UDP Port 88A4h
11 Bit
cation relationships frequently occurring in practical machine design,
e.g. in printing or packaging applications.
For freely configurable slave to slave communication, the second
mechanism applies: the data is relayed by the master. Here two cycles
are needed, but due to the inherent performance of EtherCAT, this is
still fast.
EtherCAT only uses standard frames3 – the frames are not shortened.
they can thus be sent from any Ethernet MAC, and standard tools
(e.g. monitor) can be used.
The protocol can support almost any topology (Fig. 5). The bus or
line structure of the fieldbus world can be run on Ethernet without the
quantitive limitations implied by cascaded switches or hubs. A combination of line and branches or stubs is particularly useful for system
wiring. The required interfaces exist on many devices (such as I/O
modules) and no additional switches are required. Naturally, the classic
switch-based Ethernet star topology can also be used.
Wiring flexibility extends to a choice of different cables. Standard
Ethernet cabling would be used while plastic optical fibres (POF) will
complement the system for special applications. Different combinations of optical and copper cabling can be used in combination with
switches or media converters. The Fast Ethernet physics enables a cable
length of up to 100m between two devices. Since a maximum of 65535
devices can be connected, the size of the network is almost unlimited.
1 Bit
4 Bit
Fig. 4. EtherCATuses standard frames according to IEEE 802.3 [3]
Even communication across routers into other subnets is possible.
In this variant, system performance obviously depends on the real time
characteristics of the control and its Ethernet protocol implementation. The response times of the EtherCAT network itself are hardly
restricted at all: the UDP datagram only has to be unpacked in the
first station.
As well as data exchange using the master/ slave principle, EtherCAT
is also suitable for communication between controllers (master/master).
Freely addressable network variables for process data and a variety of
services for parameterisation, diagnosis, programming and remote
control cover a range of requirements. The data interface for
master/slave and master/master communication are identical. For slave
to slave communication, two mechanisms are available. Upstream
devices can communicate to downstream devices within the same cycle
of allowing extremely fast data exchange. Since this method is dependent
on topology, it is particularly suitable for the slave to slave communi-
Fig. 5.Topology can be laid out as Line, tree or star
Accurate synchronisation is important where spatially distributed
processes require simultaneous actions. This may be the case, for
example, in applications where several servo axes carry out coordinated movements simultaneously. The most powerful approach for
synchronisation uses accurately aligned distributed clocks as described
in the IEEE1588.6 In contrast to fully synchronous communication
where synchronisation quality suffers immediately in the event of a
communication fault, distributed aligned clocks have a high degree of
tolerance versus possible fault related delays within the communication
With EtherCAT, the data exchange is based entirely on a pure
hardware machine. Since the communication uses a logical (and thanks
to full duplex Fast Ethernet also physical) ring structure, the master
clock can determine the propagation delay offset to the individual slave
clocks simply and accurately – and vice versa. The distributed clocks
are adjusted based on this value, which means that a very precise
network wide timebase with a jitter of significantly less then 1µs is
available (Fig. 6). External synchronisation, e.g. across the plant, is
then based on IEEE 1588.
Fig. 6. Synchronism and simultaneous response illustrated in a scope view of
two distributed devices with 300 nodes and 120m of cable between them
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The EtherCAT protocol…
However, high resolution distributed clocks are not only used for
synchronisation. They also provide accurate information about the
local timing of the data acquisition. For example, a motion controller
typically calculates velocities from sequentially measured positions.
Particularly with very short sampling times, even a small temporal jitter
in the position measurement leads to large step changes in the computed
velocity. With EtherCAT, timestamp data types are introduced as a
logical extension. The high resolution system time is linked to the
measured value, which is made possible by the large bandwidth offered
by Ethernet. The accuracy of a velocity calculation then no longer
depends on the jitter of the communication system. It is orders of
magnitude better than that of measuring techniques based on jitter free
System performance
EtherCAT depends on hardware integration in the slave, and direct
memory access to the network controller in the master. Protocol
processing thus takes place completely within hardware and is thus
fully independent of the run time of protocol stacks, CPU performance
or software implementation. The update time for 1000 I/Os is 30µs –
including I/O cycle time (Table 1). Up to 1486 bytes of process data
can be exchanged with a single Ethernet frame – this is equivalent to
almost 12,000 digital inputs and outputs. The transfer time for this
data quantity is only 300µs.
Process Data
Update Time
256 distributed digital I/O
11µs = 0.01ms
1000 distributed digital I/O
200 analogue I/O (16 bit)
50µs (i.e. 20kHz sampling)
100 Servo axes, with 8 Bytes
input and output data each
Fieldbus Master-Gateway
(1486 Bytes Input and 1486 Bytes output data)
Table 1. EtherCAT Performance Overview
Communication with 100 servo axes is also fast: all axes are provided
with command values and control data and can report their actual
position and status every 100µs. The distributed clock technique enables
the axes to be synchronised with a deviation of significantly less than
one microsecond. And even at this pace, there is more than sufficient
bandwidth for asynchronous communications such as TCP/IP,
parameter download or diagnostic data upload. This level of performance enables control concepts that could not be realised with classic
fieldbus systems.
The communication technology matches the superior computing
capacity of modern Industrial PCs removing the bus system as a
bottleneck in the control concept. Distributed I/Os are recorded faster
than is possible with most local I/O interfaces. The EtherCAT
technology principle is scalable and not bound to the baud rate of 10
MBaud since extension to Gbit Ethernet is also possible.
Bit faults occurring during the transfer are detected through
evaluation of the CRC checksum. The 32 bit CRC polynomial has a
minimum hamming distance of 4. Apart from broken wire detection
and localisation, the protocol, physical layer and topology of the
EtherCAT system enable individual quality monitoring of each
individual transmission segment. The automatic evaluation of the
associated error counters enables precise localisation of critical network
sections. Gradual or changing sources of error such as EMI influences,
defective connectors or cable damage are detected and located, even if
they do not yet overstrain the self healing capacity of the network.
Increasing demands in terms of system availability are catered for with
optional cable redundancy that enables devices to be exchanged without
having to shut down the network. Adding redundancy is relatively
inexpensive: the only additional hardware required is another standard
Ethernet port (no special card or interface) in the master device turning
the single cable line topology into a ring. Switchover in case of device
or cable failure only takes one cycle, so even motion control applications can survive a cable failure without problems.
EtherCAT also supports redundant masters with hot standby functionality. Since the slave controllers immediately return the frame
automatically if an interruption is encountered, failure of a device does
not necessarily lead to the complete network being shut down. Drag
chain applications, for example, can thus be specifically configured as
stubs in order to be prepared for cable break.
Conventionally, safety functions are realised separately from the
automation network, either via hardware or using dedicated safety bus
systems. Safety over EtherCAT enables safety related communication
and control communication on the same network.
The safety protocol is based on the application layer of EtherCAT,
without influencing the lower layers. It is certified according to IEC
61508 and meets the requirements of Safety Integrity Level (SIL).4 The
data length is variable, making the protocol equally suitable for safe I/O
data and for safe drive technology. There are no restrictions regarding
the communication medium or the transfer rate. Like other EtherCAT
data, the safety data can be routed without requiring safety routers or
gateways. First fully certified products featuring Safety over EtherCAT
are already available.
Use with industrial PCs
With increasing miniaturisation of the PC components, the physical size
of Industrial PCs is increasingly determined by the number of required
slots. The bandwidth of Fast Ethernet, together with the process data
width of the EtherCAT communication hardware enables new
directions. Classic interfaces that are conventionally located in the IPC
are transferred to intelligent EtherCAT interface terminals (Fig. 7).
Apart from the decentralised I/Os, drives and control units, complex
systems such as fieldbus masters, fast serial interfaces, gateways and
other communication interfaces can be addressed. Even further Ethernet
devices without restriction on protocol variants can be connected
Experience with fieldbus systems shows that availability and commissioning time crucially depends on the diagnostic capability. Only faults
that are detected quickly and accurately and located unambiguously
can be rectified quickly. Therefore, special attention was paid to
diagnostic features during development of the protocol. During commissioning, the actual configuration of the nodes (e.g. drives or I/O terminals)
should be checked for consistency with the specified configuration. The
topology should also match the configuration. Due to the built-in
topology recognition down to the individual terminals, this verification
can not only take place during system start up, automatic reading in of
the network is also possible (configuration up load).
Fig. 7. Decentralised Fieldbus
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The EtherCAT protocol…
via decentralised switchport devices. The central IPC becomes smaller
and therefore more cost-effective. One Ethernet interface is sufficient
for the complete communication with the periphery.
Virtual Ethernet switch
Device profiles
The device profiles describe the application parameters and the
functional behaviour of the devices including the device class specific
state machines. For many device classes, fieldbus technology already
offers reliable device profiles, for example for I/O devices, drives or
valves. Users are familiar with these profiles and the associated
parameters and tools. No EtherCAT-specific device profiles have
therefore been developed for these device classes. Instead, simple
interfaces for existing device profiles are being offered. This assists users
and device manufacturers alike during the migration from the existing
fieldbus to EtherCAT.
CANopen device and application profiles are available for a range
of device classes and applications, ranging from I/O components,
drives, encoders, proportional valves and hydraulic controllers to
application profiles for plastic or textile machinery, for example.
EtherCAT can provide the same communication mechanisms as the
familiar CANopen7 mechanisms: object dictionary, PDO (process
data objects) and SDO (service data objects) – even the network
management is comparable. EtherCAT can thus be implemented with
minimal effort on devices equipped with CANopen. Large parts of
the CANopen firmware can also be reused. Objects may optionally be
expanded in order to account for the larger bandwidth available under
Sercos interface is acknowledged and appreciated worldwide as a
high performance real time communication interface, particularly for
motion control applications. The Sercos profile for servo drives and
the communication technology are covered by the IEC 61491 standard8.
This profile can be readily mapped to EtherCAT. The service channel,
and therefore access to all parameters and functions residing in the
drive, is based on the EtherCAT mailbox (Fig. 8). Here too, the focus
is on compatibility with the existing protocol (access to value, attribute,
name, units etc. of the IDNs) and expandability with regard to data
length limitation.
The process data, with Sercos in the form of AT and MDT data,
are transferred using EtherCAT slave controller mechanisms. The
mapping is similar to the Sercos mapping. The EtherCAT slave state
machine can also be mapped easily to the phases of the Sercos protocol.
EtherCAT provides real time Ethernet technology for this device profile,
which is particularly widespread in CNC applications – and can draw
on the best of both protocols such as precise network wide synchronisation. Optionally, the command position, speed or torque can be
File system,
FTP, ...
Object Dictionary
Service Channel
Process Data
Mapping MDT
Process Data
EtherCAT Slave Controller
Physical Layer
Fig. 8. Several device profiles and protocols can co-exist side by side
Virtual MAC address
IP address
Fig. 9. EtherCAT enjoys transparency with other Ethernet protocols.
Ethernet frames are tunnelled via the EtherCAT protocol
transferred. Depending on the implementation, it is even possible to
continue using the same configuration tools for the drives.
Use with standard Ethernet
EtherCAT technology is fully Ethernet compatible. The protocol
tolerates other Ethernet-based services and protocols on the same
physical network – usually with minimum loss of performance. There
is no restriction on the type of Ethernet device that can be connected
within the EtherCAT segment via a switch port. The Ethernet frames
are tunnelled via the EtherCAT protocol, which is the standard
approach for Internet applications (e.g. VPN, PPPoE (DSL) etc.).The
EtherCAT network is fully transparent for the Ethernet device, and
the real time characteristics are not impaired (Fig. 9).
EtherCAT devices can additionally feature other Ethernet protocols
and thus act like a standard Ethernet device. The master itself acts like
a layer 2 switch that redirects the frames to the respective devices
according to the address information. All internet technologies can
therefore also be used in the EtherCAT environment: integrated web
server, email, FTP transfer etc.
File Access over EtherCAT (FoE) is a simple protocol similar to
TFTP which enables access to any data structure in the device.
Standardised firmware upload to devices is therefore possible, irrespective of whether or not they support TCP/IP.
Since no hubs and switches are required for EtherCAT, costs
associated with these devices including power supply, installation, etc.
are avoided. Standard Ethernet cables and standard low cost connectors
are used if the environmental conditions permit this. For environment
requiring increased protection sealed connectors according to IEC
standards are specified.
EtherCAT is characterised by outstanding performance, simple wiring
and openness for other protocols. It sets new standards where conventional fieldbus systems reach their limits: 1000 I/Os in 30µs, optionally
twisted pair cable or optical fibre and, thanks to Ethernet and Internet
technologies, optimum vertical integration. Ethernet star topology can
be replaced with a simple line structure. Optionally, EtherCAT may also
be wired in the classic way using switches, in order to integrate other
Ethernet devices.
3. IEEE 802.3: Carrier Sense Multiple Access with Collision Detection (CSMA/CD) Access
Method and Physical Layer Specifications.
4. IEEE 802.3ae 2002: CSMA/CD Access Method and Physical Layer Specifications: Media
Access Control (MAC) Parameters, Physical Layers, and Management Parameters for
10Gbps Operation.
5.ANSI/TIA/EIA 644 A, Electrical Characteristics of Low Voltage Differential Signalling
(LVDS) Interface Circuits
6. IEEE 1588 2002: IEEE Standard for a Precision Clock Synchronisation Protocol for
Networked Measurement and Control Systems
7. EN 50325 4: Industrial communications subsystem based on ISO 11898 (CAN) for
controller device interfaces. Part 4: CANopen.
8. IEC 61491: Electrical equipment of industrial machines – Serial data link for real time
communication between controls and drives
EtherCAT Technology Group,
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Page 17
EtherCAT is faster than my application requirements.Why
should I use it?
Superior fieldbus performance never harms. Even with slow
controls, it improves reaction times and reduces configuration effort,
since default settings will do the job. If you do not care so much
about performance though, use EtherCAT for its other benefits: e.g.
lower costs, more flexible topology or simply ease of use.
Why does EtherCAT provide cost advantages?
For several reasons: Inexpensive slave controllers lead to lower
slave device costs. No special master card required, the on-board
Ethernet controller is sufficient. No switches or hubs required,
therefore lower infrastructure costs. Use of standard cabling.
Simple to implement, therefore lower implementation costs.Autoconfiguration is supported, no manual address setting required,
therefore lower configuration costs.
Is EtherCAT limited to Master/Slave Applications?
No. Like with every real time Industrial Ethernet system, one
device (the master) has to be in charge of the network
management and organise the Medium Access Control.With
EtherCAT, slave-to-slave communication is supported in two ways:
topology dependent within one communication cycle, topology
independent within two cycles. Since EtherCAT is faster than
competing systems, slave-to-slave communication using two cycles
is also faster.
EtherCAT specifies two different physical layers – why?
EtherCAT uses standard 100BASE-TX on standard CAT5+ cables.
Since EtherCAT is also used as ‘backplane bus’ for modular
devices, an even lower cost physical layer from IEEE802.3ae was
added for such applications: LVDS (also called: E-Bus). Outside such
modular devices, the physical layer is changed back to 100Base-TX.
Do I have to be an ETG member to use EtherCAT?
No. However, you may want to consider joining the ETG in order
to indicate your interest in and support for this technology to
your suppliers and customers.As an ETG member, you are invited
to attend the ETG meetings, you get access to technology
information, draft specs and can influence the direction in which
the technology moves.
EtherCAT is an open technology.What does this mean?
This means that everybody may use, implement and benefit from
this technology.This also means that EtherCAT implementations
have to be compatible, and nobody may change the technology in a
way that prevents others to use it. EtherCAT already is a publicly
available specification, published by IEC (IFC/PAS 62407), and is on
its way to be integrated into the international fieldbus standard
IEC 61508.
How about licenses?
The license for implementing an EtherCAT master is free of
charge. For slave devices EtherCAT has adopted the CAN license
model (CAN is an excellent example for a standardized open
technology that is protected by patents):The small license fee is
‘embedded’ in the Slave Controller Chip, so that device
manufacturers, end users, system integrators, tool manufacturers
etc. do not have to pay a license.
Will Asics replace the FPGAs?
No. FPGAs are a versatile, manufacturer independent and cost
effective solution – not only when additional device functionalities
are integrated.An FPGA based EtherCAT interface already
undercuts legacy fieldbus interface costs – and prices are expected
to drop even further.Therefore further FPGA implementations are
on the roadmap.
MARCH 2008
EtherCAT FAQs – from the EtherCAT Technology Group
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