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How the Ethernet is going to change operations in the field

Tilo Merlin May 4, 2021
 Tilo Merlin, 
 Platform Manager, Measurement & Analytics

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Over the years, process industries have constantly looked for opportunities to improve the safety, productivity, and efficiency of their operations. The evolution of communication technology has played an important role in achieving these goals and is set to continue with another breakthrough. Communication technology for field instrumentation is about to change towards Ethernet – the leading technology, opening a new world where devices can seamlessly and securely talk to each other without the need for gateways and protocol translators.

When did the digital journey start?

Process industries started their digital journey decades ago - with ABB being a part of this journey right from the beginning - with control systems operating the biggest oil and gas plants in the world, drives and motors powering giant machines in the mining industry, analyzers detecting molecules in the exhausting gas of coal-fired power plants, and millions of measurement devices helping operators to fine-tune the performance of chemical processes.

Digital communication at a field level started in the 1990s with a protocol called Highway Addressable Remote Transducer (HART).  HART enabled the connection of distributed smart devices, up to 10,000 units for a mid-scale plant, with the controllers and engineering tools located in the central control room.  With fieldbuses such as PROFIBUS, Foundation Fieldbus and Modbus, a pure digital communication was born.

The rise of Ethernet

Ethernet and Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP) is the dominating communication standard in the world today. The basic idea is that multiple computers have access to it and can send data at any time.  Widely used in domestic and commercial settings, Ethernet is now finding growing use in industrial measurement applications, connecting the worlds of information and operation technology.

As a ‘plug and play’ technology, Ethernet is easy to set up.  Compared to other protocols, Ethernet allows the use of more common, commercially available, electrical components, helping to future proof the system and keep costs down by giving access to many sources of supply.

It also offers several other benefits. Multiple protocols and applications share the same infrastructure.  Eliminating gateways and protocol converters enables seamless communication, lowering the cost and complexity to get data from where it is generated to where it is needed, all of this while providing high reliability, low signal loss and high-speed functionality.

What about Power over Ethernet (PoE)?

Alongside Ethernet on board, Power over Ethernet (PoE) offers several additional benefits.  At a basic level it omits the need for a separate DC power infrastructure, providing power and communications via the same cable.  By using standard Ethernet cables, no special tools are required. 

Installation reliability is also increased as the centralized power enables back-up solutions with uninterruptible power supply systems.  In addition, devices can be remotely powered down during periods of low usage or for security and safety reasons.

There is also no need for additional electrical outlets or running different cables. By using a PoE-compliant Ethernet switch, no additional hardware is required for regular Ethernet installations.  PoE uses off-the-shelf components which can be found from many vendors on the market.  The same equipment can be used in the office as well as in industrial applications, reducing procurement costs.

Now, let us turn back to our initial statement and explain why and how exactly Ethernet and PoE are changing operations in the field and why this is just the beginning.

Moving with the times and presenting a world first

ABB has been working alongside the process industries throughout their digital journey, having been a pioneer in connecting distributed smart devices.  Now, in 2021, we are set to support our customers as they continue their digital evolution with a world first for instrumentation: We have incorporated PoE alongside Ethernet on board in the latest versions of our flowmeter series  ProcessMaster and CoriolisMaster

Representing a game changer for process industries, the new connectivity offers increased agility and reliability of operations while reducing costs and increasing real-time visibility of data. The added PoE functionality also allows customers more flexibility in the installation of their measurement points and takes out operational complexity.

With this we are offering customers “Measurement performance at the speed of light”!

With technology evolving, the flowmeters have been future proofed, ready for upcoming semantic protocols like OPC UA and Time Synchronized Network (TSN). This ensures real time communication capabilities in heterogenous networks transporting critical control traffic while other devices receive updates via bulk transfer.

The future

Just as Rome wasn’t built in a day, Ethernet will not take over overnight.  However, given the vast opportunities the technology can offer process industries, the wheels are firmly in motion.  The questions now facing plant operators is what next for Ethernet?  Should it be for all instruments, even for 2-wire devices?  Can further improvements and breakthroughs be realised?  At ACHEMA Pulse 2021, ABB will be looking to provide answers to these questions and more.

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