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  • Writer's pictureBob Trask

The EtherCAT Technology Group Explained     

Exploring the foundation of the EtherCAT Technology Group and why it matters for applications across industries

EtherCAT Technology Group members at a Plug Fest
The ETG was formed in 2003 and is now the largest, fastest-growing fieldbus association in the world.

The EtherCAT communication standard is immensely popular throughout the world across all types of industries. EtherCAT is often viewed as a high-performance bus, which it is, but there are many other compelling reasons for its popularity. EtherCAT is a real-time industrial Ethernet technology originally developed by Beckhoff for networking all manner of industrial devices from I/O to sensors to drives. The EtherCAT protocol is part of the IEC 61158 standard and is suitable for hard and soft real-time applications in automation, test and measurement, intralogistics, and many other applications.

This article takes a closer look at EtherCAT, including some well-known aspects and others you might not know about. Some topics we will address in future articles will discuss the protocol in detail, including how EtherCAT works when compared to other industrial Ethernet protocols, flexible topology options, high network availability, Safety over EtherCAT, diagnostics, synchronization, and combining power and communication in one cable with EtherCAT P. We’ll explore EtherCAT in the science, entertainment and semiconductor industries, and we’ll look at what the future holds for EtherCAT.

First, though, let’s describe the EtherCAT Technology Group (ETG).


What is the ETG?

The ETG was formed in 2003 and is now the largest fieldbus association in the world – and it remains the fastest growing organization of its type. The ETG is truly a member organization, and the advantages of the ETG alliance are numerous. More than 6,000 companies from 69 countries have joined forces to support the technology. Every member has a vote. ETG members include device manufacturers, technology providers, system integrators, and interestingly, end users. Having end users as a part of a fieldbus organization is unique and they have brought many benefits to EtherCAT technology because an end user has different motivations than a device manufacturer. End users want technologies to remain simple, easy to use and deploy, and extremely reliable.

The ETG is not a commercial organization; there are no products or services sold by the ETG. The purpose of the ETG is to support, promote, advance, and protect the EtherCAT technology. By “protect,” we do not mean to protect market share but rather to protect the sanctity of the protocol. After 18 years, there are no variants of the EtherCAT protocol, only functional enhancements for gigabit Ethernet, machine safety and one cable connections. And there is only one revision: EtherCAT version 1, since ETG enhanced but never changed the underlying technology. This is an astonishing fact, and we will devote an entire article to describe the history of EtherCAT and the forward thinking that made this possible.

The ETG has always taken conformity and interoperability seriously and goes to great lengths to maintain this with the many vendors of both controller and device-level products. Facilitating interoperability between fieldbus devices is complex. Interoperability means the practical ability of all field devices in the same network to interact among each other, even if they come from many different manufacturers. Because of the ETG’s work, this has not happened by accident in the case of EtherCAT.


Where can you find the ETG?

The ETG is headquartered in Nuremberg in southern Germany with four other offices throughout the world, including the U.S., China, Korea, and Japan. With three offices in the region, EtherCAT is incredibly popular in Asia. The ETG has many Technical Working Groups (TWGs), and members are strongly encouraged to provide guidance and support to the TWGs. The most popular is the TWG Semi, which has been active for 10 years and addresses device profiles, installation guidelines, and device conformance tests to meet the special requirements of the semiconductor industry.

The ETG sponsors various activities to spread the word and maintain communication with users and vendors of the technology. All these activities are focused on one common goal: keeping EtherCAT stable and interoperable. The activities include:

  • Seminars to introduce the technology.

  • Device and controller development workshops to educate those who want to implement the technology.

  • Interoperability workshops called EtherCAT Plug Fests where control and device vendors gather for two days to verify interoperability. The EtherCAT Plug Fests aim to connect all field devices to one network, and one controller at a time is connected to the network to verify compatibility.

  • Participation in various trade shows all over the world. As we ease into live events in 2021, the ETG plans to participate in three North American trade shows: Space Tech Expo in Long Beach, PACK EXPO in Las Vegas, and the rescheduled SEMICON West in San Francisco.

  • ETG annual meeting, committee meetings, and working groups where all members are invited.


How does the ETG improve automation?


One of the more recent initiatives of the ETG is to encourage people who are thinking about a new control system to consider the fieldbus first, rather than the controller. It makes no sense to have a powerful processor without the means to communicate effectively to field devices. A popular analogy is a Formula 1 car that has a massive engine but bicycle tires for wheels. High synchronization between a controller and the field is critical for high-performance systems, especially in motion control where EtherCAT has taken the world by storm.


Do you always need high performance? Certainly not, but it is never a detriment. Some will maintain that many control systems do not require super high performance. True, but the world is clearly moving toward more sophisticated software-oriented systems, with more data points and more synchronized motion.


All this can be accomplished with standard off-the-shelf, low-cost Ethernet components; there is no extra cost for the performance. In fact, EtherCAT is most often far less expensive than traditional fieldbuses and the current lot of other industrial Ethernet protocols – not only because of its cabling efficiency but also because of the huge variety of EtherCAT devices available due to the worldwide acceptance of the technology. Everyone benefits.


Benefits of an ETG membership


You do not have to be an ETG member to use EtherCAT. The ETG makes the technology accessible to everyone. It is an international IEC standard that not only stands for openness but also stability. However, if you want to show your interest and support for the technology to your suppliers and customers, membership is certainly welcome. As a member you are invited to attend ETG meetings, have access to all technical information, specifications, presentations, and you can influence the direction in which the technology moves next. And best of all, membership is free of charge.

The ETG finds that for many users who take the time to compare technologies in detail, EtherCAT quickly becomes the favorite. The unique functional principle is compelling on many levels and makes EtherCAT ‘the engineer’s choice.’


Thinking about joining the EtherCAT Technology Group but want more details? Contact ETG or your local Beckhoff sales engineer today.


Bob Trask of the EtherCAT Technology Group

Bob Trask, P.E., is the North American Representative for the EtherCAT Technology Group.

A version of this article previously appeared in Control Engineering. It is republished here with permission from ETG.

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