Digital Communications in the Process Industry with Ethernet-APL

  • November 02, 2021
  • Endress+Hauser, Inc.
  • News
Digital Communications in the Process Industry with Ethernet-APL
Digital Communications in the Process Industry with Ethernet-APL

Last year Endress+Hauser invested more than 200 million euros in production, filed 276 innovations as initial patents and brought 40 new products to the market. 2020 was also the year in which the cornerstone of a small revolution was laid, as virtually the entire product portfolio was simultaneously expanded with a new communications technology. In an interview, three leading players involved in the introduction of Ethernet-APL explain where the challenges lay and how the industry will benefit from this development.

Researchers and developers once adhered to the image of silently working in a cubbyhole until a product was manufactured and ready to be placed in the display window. These days are long gone. Today, developers are part of a close-knit network of pilot customers, product managers, market specialists and salespeople. The introduction of Ethernet-APL technology at Endress+Hauser is, however, a very special project that once again went beyond the scope of past developments. In an interview, Karl Büttner, Product Manager Platforms, Stefan Gampp, Marketing Manager Automation, and Benedikt Spielmann, Marketing Manager Industrial Communication and project leader, provide deeper insights into the special characteristics of the project.

Mr Spielmann, what is so special about Ethernet-APL, and what were the challenges of adapting the Endress+Hauser product portfolio to this technology?

Spielmann: For the process industry, Ethernet-APL represents a major step in the direction of digitalization of its production systems. The door is thus opening very wide for services that do not yet exist. And applications that the industry has long been demanding will become reality. From the user’s standpoint, however, Ethernet only makes sense as long as the essential plant assets are widely available. Once we decided to move forward with the project, that meant simultaneously retrofitting the vast majority of the products.

Büttner: When we develop a product, we demand the highest level of quality. In order to meet the challenge, the external motivation – in other words customers with a keen interest in the technology – was a big help. We were lucky that we didn’t have to start from scratch when it came to Ethernet-APL. We had already acquired some experience in the area of flow measurement. Our 4-wire instruments were equipped with PROFINET. APL simply represents a new physical layer over which we can also “talk” Ethernet. We also had experience with Ethernet in the food sector, such as breweries, and in the life sciences industry. The challenge, of course, was that this issue was very new. Our teams began to develop and implement while the specification was still being worked on. That brings about a degree of uncertainty…

… not to mention that it sounds unusual …

Büttner: True, but this was the only way to equip our partners with prototypes at an early stage and achieve a fast pace with series production. The specifications are now complete. It also helped that Endress+Hauser was actively involved in the specification. That allowed us to skillfully manage the risk of a development heading in the wrong direction. An even bigger challenge though was coordinating the project across the company.

How did that work exactly?

Büttner: First off, the availability of the corresponding PHY-chips is essential for a new development project. In this case we worked closely with the manufacturers to make sure that we had designs for the various prototypes at an early stage. For some people, that meant developing a variant of their instrument, while others had to design a completely new product. For smaller instruments, such as the in-head temperature transmitter, the difficulty involved bringing the electronic boards into this small form factor. However, in terms of both hardware and software, during this phase Endress+Hauser did an excellent job of organizing the knowledge transfer across all the different areas. Otherwise, we would not have been in a position to convert so many instruments in such a short period of time. What helped us was that we had already maintained in-depth discussions between the individual departments and areas long before APL.

How do the instruments change in terms of the operation? Are users faced with other functions or operating logic with Ethernet-APL?

Büttner: The instruments are simpler to use and the plug-and-play concept – simple system integration in other words – is coming. We took the requirements of the process industry into account during development, and within the framework of the APL specification, we implemented the installation direct via a terminal connection instead of the RJ45 plug. The connectivity technology is thus simple and robust and the cables are protected against reverse polarity. That further reduces complexity for the end user.

Why is Ethernet-APL needed from the user’s point of view?

Gampp: Our users don’t talk about Ethernet-APL; they talk about Ethernet-based field instruments. The goal is to be able to better implement projects like condition monitoring or predictive maintenance and do it in an optimized manner due to the intelligence of the field instruments. New business models have been emerging for some time already, not only to improve maintenance but to optimize workflows. Or take the option of operating the instruments via the web server as an example, which by itself reduces the workload for many users.

Ethernet-APL was launched this year at ACHEMA Pulse. How did the visitors react?

Gampp: We noticed that large chemical companies are not the only ones looking at this issue. Even mid-sized companies and some machine engineering specialists are paying attention. What’s especially interesting for a lot of companies is that the application of Ethernet-APL is homogenous all the way down to the field level, even in Ex zones.

Spielmann: The advantages of Ethernet-APL combined with the modularity of the technology are especially interesting for users who are planning to build a new plant or expand their plants, or for those with larger modernization projects. Even in environments where PROFIBUS PA already exists, Ethernet-APL can be implemented in parallel. Migration is possible, plus certain infrastructures such as the fieldbus type A cable can be reused. What also helps is that APL switches from some manufacturers communicate with PROFIBUS PA instruments. That means old instruments in the field or in inventory can continue to be used while you gradually migrate to PROFINET.

Were there also questions regarding consultation during the launch?

Gampp: Yes. Smaller companies in particular are still frequently reluctant. Much like we did with PROFINET before, we support customers with more than just training. We also offer support during the design and engineering phases of the automation landscape, the set up and optimization of mixed topologies, and so on.

Even internationally, by the way…

Büttner: Another good aid is the engineering guideline that the members of the Ethernet-APL consortium worked on together. This Ethernet-APL primer covers everything really well. We’re supporting the PROFINET organization with the development of a training concept at the same time. I think plant designers and users are well provided for.

Is the APL project now complete in your opinion?

Büttner: (laughs) No, Ethernet-APL will be with us for a long time still. In the next step we’re taking a look at the instruments that are installed less frequently and have yet to be converted. And there are still a lot of exciting issues to address, such as instruments for non-Ex zones. Even power-hungry instruments such as Coriolis flowmeters or electromagnetic flowmeters should be able to operate in the future via 2-wire cables and without an additional power source. I also believe that end customers–and here I’m mainly referring to members of the NAMUR world–have further plans for Ethernet-APL in the future. There will be enough for us to do.

The Endress+Hauser Group

Endress+Hauser is a global leader in measurement and automation technology for process and laboratory applications. The family company, headquartered in Reinach, Switzerland, achieved net sales of approximately 2.6 billion euros in 2020 with a total workforce of more than 14,000.

Endress+Hauser devices, solutions and services are at home in many industries. Customers thus use them to gain valuable knowledge from their applications. This enables them to improve their products, work economically and at the same time protect people and the environment.

Endress+Hauser is a reliable partner worldwide. Its own sales companies in 50 countries as well as representatives in another 70 countries ensure competent support. Production facilities on four continents manufacture quickly and flexibly to the highest quality standards.

Endress+Hauser was founded in 1953 by Georg H Endress and Ludwig Hauser. Ever since, the company has been pushing ahead with the development and use of innovative technologies, now helping to shape the industry’s digital transformation. 8,900 patents and applications protect the Group’s intellectual property.

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