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What is EtherCAT?

Admin | December 2nd, 2021

As automation applications evolve, machine builders are leveraging smarter, more flexible technologies to optimize process performance—and ideally reduce hardware costs as well. One such solution is EtherCAT, an Ethernet-based fieldbus system powering a whole new era of control products. 


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KEB’s next-generation drive products feature EtherCAT as the standard communication protocol, delivering peak performance for their cost across even the most difficult automation applications, from robotics and packaging to machine tools. But how does this EtherCAT technology work—and what meaningful benefits can it offer for your control and automation needs? 


What Is EtherCAT Technology?

Ethernet for Control Automation Technology (or EtherCAT) is a powerful tool designed specifically for industrial automation. It was originally developed and used by Beckhoff in 2003 as a means to improve performance and simplify handling across automation workflows, starting with EtherCAT terminals to process analog input signals. Over time, other devices using this technology were developed, including sensors, controllers, and drives. 


automation component diagram with industrial software drives and motors
Diagram of an automation system showing EtherCAT Communication that begins with software and goes down through the IPC , I/O, and VFDs to command the direction and speed of the system motors.


EtherCAT is a great choice for many industrial applications, especially where high-performance motion control is required. It creates a seamless, all-in-one connection system that’s easy to configure and integrate with additional devices or technologies. For example, most EtherCAT terminals contain space for many channels with standard wiring—with removable wiring levels for simplified maintenance. These tools also support various signal types with digital and analog for input and output.

Most crucially, EtherCAT is an extremely fast and dependable industrial Ethernet technology. It enables coordination between the I/O, positioning data, control of drives, and other assets. This results in optimal precision, repeat and process accuracy, and/or throughput, depending on the use case. 


Applications for EtherCAT


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Wind Power

EtherCAT integrates perfectly with the high-precision measurement and safety technology used in wind farms and turbines. This solution offers exceptional bandwidth as a fieldbus and makes wind power systems more cost-effective and simple. Turbine builders can even leverage Safety over EtherCAT to ensure operator and machine safety across the network.


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EtherCAT controls work in tandem with servo drives to coordinate motion across the packaging line. These scalable, easy-to-configure controls create a dependable motion control platform for packaging machines, optimizing costs and versatility in the process. 


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Material Handling

EtherCAT is a game-changing technology for powering the supply chain, especially when using regenerative drives. For example, the R6 Line Regen pairs flexibility and performance, making it ideal for cranes, hoists, and elevators. These drives are also fully compatible with 3rd party VFDs and are a good choice for automated storage and retrieval system (ASRS) machines. 


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EtherCAT systems can be utilized to precisely sync different elements of robotics systems, from external I/Os to drives for accurate, repeatable positioning. This feature enables more complex, timing-based functions to be completed by automated robots. EtherCAT I/O and F6 VFDs can also be leveraged in the design and programming phase to create a separate, dedicated control system. 


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Metalworking Machinery

EtherCAT serves an invaluable role in metalworking machinery by providing accurate, real-time motion control. This advantage creates shorter cycle times when producing metal components, and limits harmful vibrations in the metalworking machine, thereby reducing maintenance costs and improving the lifespan of mechanical parts. 


EtherCAT Solutions at KEB

KEB offers a complete catalog of industry-leading control and automation technologies that are compatible with EtherCAT. Our EtherCAT VFDs deliver a scan time of 125μS, making them well suited to high-performance applications. These VFDs are also flexible enough to run multiple motor types, creating an adaptable solution for machine builders. 


KEB EtherCAT drives in different power sizes
KEB VFDs have standardized on EtherCAT for communication.


Alongside our standard EtherCAT drives, we offer top-of-the-line EtherCAT Safety PLCs. As a SIL3/PLe certified safety control, this PLC leverages FSoE (fail-safe over EtherCAT) to pair and communicate with KEB’s FSoE drives, allowing any safety function to be managed through the FSoE bus. These units also feature several additional safety and assessment tools, including braking transistors and KTY/PTC motor temperature monitoring.


Safety PLC and KEB S6 drive using EtherCAT communication in a control panel cabinet
KEB safety PLC (top of image – yellow module on DIN rail, just right of the C6 Smart IPC) shown connected to a S6 Drive to demonstrate FSoE (Functional Safety over EtherCAT).


Even our Industrial PCs make use of EtherCAT. Available in multiple configurations (including panel, box, and book), KEB’s E22 IPCs include an EtherCAT master and can handle over ten axes of real-time coordinated motion control. The E22 IPC can also be customized in a range of sizes and formats to suit your specific application, serving as one of our best solutions for industrial machines requiring CNC functionality and coordinated motion control. 

KEB E22 Industrial PC product photo used in industrial automation systems
The KEB E22 IPC is a flexible solution available with or without a screen.


Unlock the Potential of EtherCAT

For over 40 years, KEB has pushed the standard for innovative control and automation technologies. Our team can help you find or develop the ideal solution for your unique application needs. As your partner, we deliver both technical and application expertise to ensure your automation technology achieves your goals—and sets you above competitors in your market.

To learn more about EtherCAT, and how your team can harness this tool to build your competitive advantage, contact a KEB solutions engineer today. We look forward to collaborating to drive your success. 

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