A beginner's guide to Ethernet Powerlink

Feb. 1, 2006
Ethernet is a high-speed communications network commonly found in factories. It sends information from PCs to destinations such as other PCs, servers,

Ethernet is a high-speed communications network commonly found in factories. It sends information from PCs to destinations such as other PCs, servers, scanners, and printers. Since the 1970s, Ethernet has been used in offices, as a backbone for the Internet, and is now expanding to industrial automation. To attest to its widespread use, Ethernet is also defined in IEEE 802.3, which covers the physical hardware, voltage levels, and structure of its frame.

Industrial automation demands that systems react to events within expected time constraints. Otherwise, malfunctions and destructive mechanical collisions can occur, causing downtime or personal injuries. Some factors Ethernet has overcome for factory applications include:

  • Data size and complexity

  • Speed

  • System stability, safety, and security

  • Environmental influences (electromagnetic, temperature)


Ethernet is a communication medium that transmits digital data. To better illustrate this, suppose several individuals in a room engage in a discussion. Here, Ethernet's physical equivalent is air. If some individuals move to other locations, a physical layer, such as a phone line, must be added to keep all parties in on the conversation. The phone, however, must be equipped with talk and listen signals to prevent people from speaking over each other. Likewise with Ethernet, successful transmissions on one channel require that data not collide or mix. To that end, Ethernet employs simultaneous listening and speaking techniques (transmitting and receiving), which IEEE terms Carrier Sense Multiple Access Collision Detection (CSMA/CD). These techniques work best when data (or individuals) listen first, then speak.

Ethernet relies on a point-to-point configuration where each device connects to the network using a single cable through an infrastructure component, such as a switch. The switch then sends data to a specific Ethernet device with a Medium Access Control or MAC address. All addresses are globally unique; thus, only the destination address processes data.

Ethernet Powerlink

Ethernet Powerlink originated at the field-device level (rather than from the top down), which allows smoother data transfers from high-order IT systems down to drives and sensors. This also facilitates data transfers between Internet access and motion control on shop floors for remote control and diagnostics.

One important attribute of Powerlink is that it's an open network, or, can be used with any supplier's chips. Another is its determinism (predictability). Specifically, Powerlink can predict the amount of time a device waits to gain network access for data transmissions. A third feature is that Powerlink allows devices with different data rates to mix in the same system and connect to the same switch. As such, 10 Mbit/sec Ethernet devices can be expanded to use faster 100 Mbit/sec products. In other field-bus networks, the slowest device determines the data rate for an entire network.

Automation packages

Industrial automation systems designed around Ethernet Powerlink employ fewer centralized motion controllers, thereby reducing cost. Decentralized drives can perform velocity, torque, and positioning tasks, such as absolute and relative moves and homing. Powerlink allows any device on the network to act as system manager — critical for establishing a back-up manager. And, fewer motion controllers also reduce cabling and wiring complexity.

Ethernet-compatible controllers deliver benefits to software. For example, motion controllers exercising basic languages provide simplicity and reduce development time. Multitasking permits control of motion, I/O, logic control, HMI and communication tasks. In addition, multitasking simplifies complex applications by breaking them into manageable subtasks.

Ethernet at work

A motion application with more than 15 servomotors and six different tools required one setup to automatically move items into place without shutting down or pausing upstream stations. By combining Ethernet Powerlink and decentralized control, the master position set point broadcast every 400 µsec. It, along with set position points for each axis, were calculated locally via an integrated hub. (The other option, a centralized control approach, would have limited the number of synchronized axes because its broadcast slows the system.)

Using Ethernet with decentralized control improved machine throughput by more than 200% — up to 50 fpm — while also improving tolerances to less than 0.04 in. The new machine produced higher-quality parts more economically, reduced setup time and scrap, and increased overall machine flexibility.

Sponsored Recommendations

How BASF turns data into savings

May 7, 2024
BASF continuously monitors the health of 63 substation assets — with Schneider’s Service Bureau and EcoStruxure™ Asset Advisor. ►Learn More: https://www.schn...

Agile design thinking: A key to operation-level digital transformation acceleration

May 7, 2024
Digital transformation, aided by agile design thinking, can reduce obstacles to change. Learn about 3 steps that can guide success.

Can new digital medium voltage circuit breakers help facilities reduce their carbon footprint?

May 7, 2024
Find out how facility managers can easily monitor energy usage to create a sustainable, decarbonized environment using digital MV circuit breakers.

The Digital Thread: End-to-End Data-Driven Manufacturing

May 1, 2024
Creating a Digital Thread by harnessing end-to-end manufacturing data is providing unprecedented opportunities to create efficiencies in the world of manufacturing.

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of Machine Design, create an account today!