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  • Doug Schuchart

EtherCAT: A Fulfillment and Parcel Center Digitization Enabler

From its functional principle to Gigabit extensions, EtherCAT optimizes intralogistics equipment and supports machine learning, mechatronics and more

The nearly unlimited network size and performance of EtherCAT continues to solve common technical challenges for material handling and intralogistics equipment providers. It considerably reduces both engineering efforts and installation time, equaling substantial cost savings. However, EtherCAT can also be an important tool in the arsenal for solving an emerging opportunity: the complete optimization of fulfillment and parcel operations.

More and more we hear about “lights out” operations, those that run completely autonomously or with little intervention or interaction. Whether centers run completely autonomously or with various levels of human and robotic collaboration, one thing is certain: Digitization is the key to optimizing fulfillment and parcel operations of the future, and digitization requires highly-connected devices and the flow of large amounts of data. EtherCAT can establish connectivity to all devices in the center, and its bandwidth for communicating vast amounts of data is yet another benefit.

Let’s explore these EtherCAT advantages further, along with examples of how they help companies achieve their digitization goals and enable smart fulfillment operations with AI.

Unlimited advantages with EtherCAT

Before we dive into how EtherCAT’s bandwidth is an enabler of digitization, it’s important to give an overview of other aspects of the protocol that make it ideal for intralogistics, parcel and postal applications. The EtherCAT protocol provides:

  • More than 65,000 devices on a single network segment. Examples of devices are single- or dual-axis drives; 4, 8, 16 or 32-point I/O blocks; network barcode scanners; or network safety scanners. Now increase the number of these devices to over 65,000 – that’s the “limit” for an EtherCAT segment, and multiple segments can be connected to a single Beckhoff controller.

  • Fastest fieldbus performance in the world, offering ultra-fast communication even to thousands of devices.

  • Flexible topology without impact on performance or synchronization. This includes true line topology, which is ideal for conveying and sortation equipment, without cascaded switch delays.

  • High security since EtherCAT is not based on the Internet Protocol (IP). IP is a pathway for malware and other security threats, as well as a source of significant configuration time which increases engineering cost.

  • Exceptional built-in diagnostics for quick identification of network issues and improved uptime.

  • Complete interoperability and openness supporting communication with all legacy fieldbus protocols and other Ethernet protocols.

It’s clear why so many global material handling equipment providers are adopting EtherCAT into the control architecture of their equipment. Even with the flexibility to control many devices on a single EtherCAT network with ultra-fast performance, there remains considerable bandwidth for tunneling additional data. This available bandwidth combines with EtherCAT’s openness and support of all open fieldbus protocols to yield extraordinary advantages for users in the intralogistics industry.

With the many communication gateways from Beckhoff to interface with the EtherCAT network, virtually any open protocol can be tunneled through EtherCAT. This capability eliminates the need for routing further cables back to PLC cabinets, considerably reducing system complexity, cost and installation time. Protocols such as IO-Link, ASi, EtherNet/IP, PROFINET and even fieldbuses more common in brownfield sites, such as DeviceNet, PROFIBUS and CANopen, can all communicate across the EtherCAT network without the need to run parallel networks which add considerable cost and complexity. The benefits of EtherCAT provide ultimate interoperability with any device as well as complete horizontal communication across any facility, old or new. EtherCAT can serve as the perfect communication highway for all important sensor data for control and operational digitization.

Benefits of EtherCAT’s bandwidth utilization for intralogistics systems

The exceptional bandwidth of EtherCAT is due to its unique functional principal of “ethernet processing on the fly” and its unique bandwidth utilization. EtherCAT G, the gigabit extension of the existing EtherCAT technology, sets even new standards for data bandwidth while further improving the already unrivaled network performance.

Consider, for instance, an extremely large conveyor application where the conveyor belt is vulcanized with conductor loops for predictive analysis of future belt breakage. In this real-world application example, an EtherCAT EL3702 2-channel analog input terminal with oversampling from Beckhoff enables system updates for 200 channels of analog inputs at 100,000 samples per second per channel across the network every 1ms. EtherCAT’s oversampling feature enables sampling at a 10 µs sample distance. A total of 322 Mbit/s of user bandwidth is required for the application. Yes, 322 Mbit/s of data! This successful EtherCAT application is handled with just four network segments out of a single Beckhoff machine controller with 12% remaining network bandwidth.

By simply replacing the standard EK1100 EtherCAT couplers with EK1400 EtherCAT G couplers, the solution now has an update rate of 812 µs with 650 Mbit/s bandwidth remaining – that is, 65% still available. The remaining bandwidth is then available for other data communication and machine control. There is no change required in I/Os, cabling or the machine controller and EtherCAT master, just a simple replacement of the fieldbus couplers.

Put simply, EtherCAT is the one protocol that meets the requirements for complete warehouse performance and digitization. This is just one example of how digitization through EtherCAT, and the extended functionality of EtherCAT G, can be used to optimize the operation of a fulfillment or parcel center. Efficient communication of data is critical for the predictive maintenance of equipment to improve uptime, but localized analytics software is also important for actionable insights and performance gains.

Make the most of increased data with machine learning (ML)

Machine learning, a subset of artificial intelligence, is another way in which the operational data is used to optimize equipment in facilities. Since EtherCAT enables the connection of all sensors across the center and can transmit vast amounts of data directly to the machine controller, the Beckhoff controller is the ideal location to collect and store the data as opposed to the use of separate edge devices. Beckhoff controllers support multiple removable and extendable storage media options for the collection of vast amounts of data, up to several terabytes. Data can be stored locally in flat files or in SQL or noSQL databases.

The data can then be used with Beckhoff’s TwinCAT real-time scope tools for local analysis of events in real-time or those that occurred in the past. TwinCAT Analytics can also be used to analyze data at the edge in the Beckhoff machine controller. Results of local analyses can then be sent to the enterprise system or the cloud via TwinCAT IoT, which includes vertical communication such as OPC UA, MQTT and HTTPS/REST.

Here, further analysis can be applied with the use of open data science platforms such as MATLAB and Python to create standard ONNX (Open Neutral Network Exchange) machine learning inferences. The Machine Learning inferences can be loaded back into the Beckhoff machine controller via TwinCAT Machine Learning and run in real-time along with the TwinCAT PLC, making autonomous decisions that direct the PLC logic in microseconds. Machine Learning inferences running in the TwinCAT PLC open new possibilities for optimization including more accurate predictive maintenance and operational equipment optimizations.

Faster ROI for gapping, AS/RS, AGVs and other equipment

An example of how Beckhoff is adapting ML inferences is with Beckhoff’s XTS linear transport system, which is ideal for high-speed, dynamic gapping applications. Beckhoff has used open-source data science platforms to develop an ONNX machine learning inference that runs on the Beckhoff gapper machine controller. The ML inference provides guidance to the XTS movers in real-time to limit jerk and optimize acceleration for reaching its target destination. This reduces the wear on the movers, extending the life of the bearings and providing significant energy conservation. These technologies are ideal for reducing cost and improving companies’ sustainability initiatives.

Similar ML inferences can be used in other common intralogistics equipment, one example being the shuttles of an automated storage and retrieval system. AS/RS systems can incorporate hundreds of shuttles; the lower cost of ownership via reduced wear of mechanics as well as substantial energy savings can improve ROI for the initial investment in automation. Similar approaches and optimization can help to shorten the ROI of other automated equipment such as AGVs, smart singulators, sorters and high-speed gappers, which may help companies realize more automation in their operations to meet the changing demands of e-commerce.

Want to learn more about how EtherCAT enhances today’s distribution and fulfillment centers? Contact your local Beckhoff sales engineer today.


Doug Schuchart is the Material Handling & Intralogistics Industry Manager for Beckhoff Automation LLC.

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