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What is EtherCAT?

Admin | December 2nd, 2021

As automation evolves, machine builders leverage more innovative, flexible technologies to optimize process performance and reduce hardware costs. One such solution is EtherCAT, an Ethernet-based fieldbus system powering a new era of control products.

EtherCAT, or “Ethernet for Control Automation Technology,” is the next generation of Ethernet. But how does this EtherCAT technology work, and what meaningful benefits can it offer for your control and automation needs?


image of EtherCAT logo



What is EtherCAT Technology?

EtherCAT is a powerful tool designed for industrial automation. KEB’s drive products feature EtherCAT as the standard communication protocol, delivering peak performance across even the most challenging real-time automation applications, from robotics and packaging to machine tools.


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.


A Brief History

The industrial automation world outgrew the ethernet network system established in the 1970s and 80s. They needed a new solution that offered greater bandwidth.

Beckhoff originally developed EtherCAT technology in 2003, starting with EtherCAT terminals to process analog input signals, as a means to improve performance and simplify handling across automation workflows.

The EtherCAT Technology Group (ETG) promotes and regulates EtherCAT development. The group made EtherCAT available on an open protocol to further technology innovation and increase its accessibility within devices.

Over time, many devices using this technology were developed, including sensors, controllers, and drives.


What is EtherCAT Network

On regular ethernet systems, devices connect across a network that connects to the internet.

Though ethernet is generally fast and inexpensive, the simplicity of the devices’ connection means it is difficult to control the speed at which messages travel across the network or prioritize which device is sending the most critical information.

One of the disadvantages of ethernet is that it can’t differentiate between the kinds of systems it’s connected to and the data they’re sending.

An EtherCAT network is far more complex than ethernet. An EtherCAT network uses a relay system that can prioritize and expedite device communications. Since the EtherCAT sends all the messages through the system, devices are not competing across the network.

Devices also don’t have to process messages individually. One of the other advantages of an EtherCAT network is that it can process message headers while also sending and receiving data from multiple devices.


What are the Uses of EtherCAT?

EtherCAT is an excellent 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.

EtherCAT is a 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 throughput, depending on the use.


Best Applications for EtherCAT

EtherCAT’s applications across industrial technology can save you time, money, and headache by connecting your network with accuracy and speed. A few of EtherCAT’s applications include:

  • Wind power
  • Packaging
  • Material Handling
  • Robotics
  • Metalworking Machinery


Icon of wind power turbine


Wind Power

If you use or generate wind power, you want your operations to be a breeze. EtherCAT integrates perfectly with high-precision measurement and safety technology in wind farms and turbines.

Connecting your systems with EtherCAT solutions offers exceptional bandwidth and makes wind power systems more cost-effective and straightforward. Turbine builders can also leverage Safety over EtherCAT to ensure operator and machine safety across the network.


shipping box Icon for material handling



In addition to KEB’s complete product portfolio of packaging machines, KEB EtherCAT controls work 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.


Material Handling icon


Material Handling

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


icon of a robotic arm



EtherCAT systems can 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 to create a separate, dedicated control system in the design and programming phase.


metalworking cnc machine icon


Metalworking Machinery

EtherCAT is invaluable in metalworking machinery by providing accurate, real-time motion control. It 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 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 the managing of any safety function through the FSoE bus.

These units also feature safety and assessment tools, including braking transistors and monitoring KTY/PTC motor temperature.


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).


Down to the Basics

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 various sizes and formats to suit your specific application. It serves 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

Put EtherCAT to work for your industrial automation needs with the experience and ingenuity of KEB behind you.

For over 40 years, KEB has pushed the standard for innovative control and automation technologies. Our team can help you develop the ideal solution for your unique application needs by putting EtherCAT to work for you.

As your partner, we deliver 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 with you to drive your success.

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