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  • Writer's pictureJesse Hill

How to Integrate NOA and Ethernet-APL into Process Control Using PC-based Automation

Harnessing an extended automation architecture and new data communication technologies can power your digital transformation

With high-level hype quickly becoming real world applications the process industry needs to keep pace with accelerating digitalization trends. That can be difficult considering the special requirements of sprawling process systems. However, it’s important if operators want to bring their systems, plants and entire operations up to date using Industry 4.0 and Internet of Things (IoT) concepts.

While the definitions of these concepts are sometimes in dispute, there’s general consensus on their goals. IoT-equipped applications must collect every byte of key operating data generated in a plant and make it available to various applications. Then engineers can evaluate this data using analytical tools or machine learning models, for example, to detect failures in field devices at an early stage. The data also helps us optimize processes and increase productivity.

That said, implementing IoT concepts is particularly challenging in established plants. The information required from the field devices is not captured in the existing automation architecture. Fortunately, two technologies are streamlining this process: NAMUR Open Architecture (NOA) and Ethernet Advanced Physical Layer (Ethernet-APL). Let’s dive into both, their advantages and their possible use cases.


Data capture on the edge with NOA

A Beckhoff edge device for NOA - NAMUR Open Architecture
With the NAMUR Open Architecture (NOA), the process industry can be digitalized without having to change the established control technologies.

The NOA concept extends the automation architecture without altering the existing control system. NOA’s core task is to provide information from the field level to higher-level applications to monitor and optimize the plant (M+O). The focus here is on parameters that are read out cyclically, which contain information on device status or process quality. The challenge lies in the fact that the interfaces of the field devices differ, based on manufacturer and type.

To solve this challenge, Beckhoff has developed an NOA edge device specifically for reading out the additional operating data for the higher-level M+O. This consists of a compact embedded PC, EtherCAT Terminals with HART functionality, and the relevant TwinCAT project. The edge device can be placed directly in the plant or in the control room. Field devices are connected to the edge device via a second channel, implemented by a signal isolator.

Using the HART protocol, the required commands can be sent to the field device and the additional data can be read out. The data is converted, translated and structured within the edge device. Then an information model stored on the OPC UA server is filled out. This model is typically based on the PA-DIM, but it can also be customized.

NOA’s brownfield and greenfield use cases

The NOA concept has significant potential, particularly for brownfield applications. Most of the time, the only way to future-proof existing plants is by converting or upgrading them. By retrofitting them with NOA edge devices, operators can reduce costs and increase output by simply monitoring and optimizing plants without changing the current process control methods.

Of course, that’s only considering data from existing field devices. Much more could be accomplished by adding sensors to acquire diagnostic data, such as vibration or temperature measurement. EPP series IP67-rated I/O box modules installed directly in the field can prove incredibly useful in these cases. Several sensors are connected to one module, and the signals are transmitted to the edge device collectively via one cable using EtherCAT P. This version cuts down on cable routing work while also reducing the space required in the control cabinet.

NOA also offers advantages for greenfield plants. Additional monitoring sensors could be installed in the plant planning stage, thus providing more data for monitoring and optimization. New technologies such as Ethernet-APL make this even easier to implement.

The Ethernet-APL concept aims to implement the entire communication in process technology plants – from the field level to higher-level control systems – on the basis of Ethernet. This not only focuses on the pure process data, but more specifically on the status information of the field device. The increased transmission rate compared to legacy process fieldbus systems also allows web servers to be used for parameterization or downloading data sheets or certificates directly from the field device.

However, users face many challenges during implementation. APL-capable field devices are necessary to gain these advantages. Since this technology is still in its early days, the market does not yet offer a broad portfolio of devices. Established plants also lack space for installing additional infrastructure components, such as switches. And implementing Ethernet-based communication technology down to field level requires new functions and policies for IT and OT security.


Seamless integration of Ethernet-APL via standard EtherCAT I/O

Intrinsically safe Ethernet-APL terminal from Beckhoff
With the ELX6233 2-channel communication interface, Ethernet-APL field devices can be integrated into the control architecture with an exceptionally compact and modular I/O platform.

Despite the currently limited options available market-wide, users can integrate Ethernet-APL into their plants and benefit from its many advantages right now. One solution is to combine the new technology with proven standards such as the HART protocol. Existing plants can progressively digitalize with new APL devices as they become available. This removes the barriers created by a complete rip and replace scenario.

Beckhoff has already integrated Ethernet-APL technology into our modular I/O terminal portfolio: the ELX6233 EtherCAT Terminal, for example, offers a 2-channel communication interface for Ethernet-APL. Contrary to the typical field switch concept, this creates an alternative for integrating APL field devices today. The modular system allows the user to install the exact required number of Ethernet-APL channels in the control cabinet, saving valuable space and enabling flexible expansion of the application.

Like many of the EtherCAT Terminals from the Beckhoff portfolio, the ELX6233 can be mounted in zone 2 hazardous areas and allows Ethernet-APL field devices to be connected from zone 0. The interfaces comply with the specifications of IEC 60079-47 and follow the SPAA port profile.

The scalability of the ELX6233 provides efficient solutions for integrating Ethernet-APL field devices in small test setups as well as for large process plants. As part of the expansive EtherCAT Terminal system, the ELX6233 can be combined with other digital and analog I/Os so that standard signals or communication protocols can be integrated in addition to Ethernet-APL.

When it comes to digitalization, direct connection to Beckhoff CX series Embedded PCs offers a whole host of advantages. These include enabling gateway applications to process data from the field and filter it before sharing it further.


Conclusion: driving toward digital transformation

Ethernet-APL may break down barriers, but it’s not without its own roadblocks as of today. It can also lead to further challenges in terms of IT and OT security. But unlike many PROFINET architectures, the APL controller is located directly in an EtherCAT Terminal and not in a higher-level controller.

Data security is also significantly better than it is with classic switched networks due to the separation of individual ports and protocols. In addition, performance can be significantly increased in terms of cycle times, as EtherCAT enables a more compact process image in terms of data size compared to other fieldbuses.

Ethernet-APL opens many exciting possibilities for users. However, if this technology is to be implemented quickly, it is vital that it can be integrated into brownfield installations. As such, operators can continue to digitalize their plants and leverage Industry 4.0 concepts to be more competitive as early adopters. Implementing NOA and Ethernet-APL using the ELX6233 EtherCAT Terminal offers users the ideal recipe of flexibility, modularity, expandability, and security required for true digital transformation.

How can you accelerate digitalization in your process automation applications with NOA and Ethernet-APL? Contact your local Beckhoff sales engineer today.


Jesse Hill of Beckhoff Automation USA

Jesse Hill is the Process Industry Manager at Beckhoff Automation LLC

1 Comment

May 10

From a professional perspective, I believe the title should be changed from PC-Based automation to Sever-Based automation. Talking with several colleagues and friends, titles or names with PC in it sounds a bit 1. Prehistoric and 2. Insecure. While security for PCs have come a long way people’s brains are still stuck on that one time they lost all their information or spreadsheets either because a PC crashed or it was hacked. Server based automation allows for a broader approach of the SCADA system as well as CPM architecture.

By the way, it was my pleasure chatting with you on Thursday at OTC. I’m looking forward to potentially chatting with you again soon.


Fredrick Jones

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