Industrial Ethernet's Many Flavors

“Would you like Ethernet with that?” It’s a question that more automation buyers are hearing these days, as a growing number of industrial connectivity product vendors jump on the Ethernet bandwagon.

This trend toward “Ethernet as a utility” is one of several that was noted by Harry Forbes, a senior analyst at ARC Advisory Group Inc., Dedham, Mass., during a presentation at the third International Industrial Ethernet Symposium, sponsored by Siemens, Oct. 3-4 in Chicago.

ARC projects a compound annual growth rate for industrial Ethernet devices at around 50 percent over the next several years. But today’s industrial Ethernet users may still feel more like they’re in an ice cream parlor than at a fast food joint. Instead of being asked simply if they want fries with their burgers, they’re being asked to select from among a wide assortment of Industrial Ethernet “flavors,” with each of several consortia promoting their own, differing Ethernet protocols.

Which way?

That’s one reason, in fact, that Siemens organized the Chicago event. “In the long term, we know there will be some level of consolidation of the various standards in Ethernet that will occur in our industry.
But in the short term, we owe it to you to help create the right way forward,” said Jeffrey Howe, a Siemens representative, during his opening remarks before the gathering. Howe is product business manager, networking products, for Siemens Energy & Automation Inc. (www.sea.siemens.com), Alpharetta, Ga.

The Symposium was unusual in the fact that it was organized by a single automation vendor, Siemens, but included presentations from a variety of competitive vendors and their end-users. An opening-day panel session included presentations from different industrial consortia representatives, many from vendor companies, covering their own particular “standard” approach to industrial Ethernet. This group then joined in a panel “debate.”

Besides Profinet, from Profibus International—which is Siemens’ favored industrial Ethernet flavor—other Ethernet “standards” represented included: EtherNet/IP, from the Open DeviceNet Vendor’s Association (ODVA); EtherCAT, from the EtherCAT Technology Group; Modbus TCP, from Modbus-IDA; Sercos III, from Sercos International; Ethernet Powerlink, from the Ethernet Powerlink Standardization Group; and High Speed Ethernet, from the Fieldbus Foundation.

Seven flavors?

At one point during the panel discussion, Scott Westlake, representing Cisco Systems Inc., the big San Jose, Calif.-based network equipment company, questioned the rationale for today’s situation. “Does it really make sense to have seven different versions of industrial Ethernet?” Westlake asked, adding that he considers this situation to be “absolutely ludicrous.”

Consortia representatives defended their individual Ethernet flavors, however, noting that each involves features and modifications designed to address specific industrial needs, such as motion control capabilities, safety and redundancy. And while some agreed that consolidation is coming, panel members also said that as with fieldbuses today, several versions of industrial Ethernet will continue to exist going forward.

Wider adoption of industrial Ethernet in the future will produce benefits through interoperability with enterprise networks, reduced costs, and improved communication speeds and distances, among other advantages, various speakers at the Symposium pointed out.

The Chicago Industrial Ethernet Symposium was the first to be held in the United States; preceding events were in Europe. About 150 attended the Chicago Symposium, about half of whom were
end-users, according to Howe.

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