WALTHAM, Mass. -- NETsilicon Inc. here has come up with a hardware/software solution that it said makes it possible to use Ethernet in high-speed real-time industrial automation.
NETsilicon's NET+Fast IP is a software module that supports its NET+Works family of embedded networking solutions. NET+Fast IP reduces the time required to process and execute commands over Ethernet from several milliseconds to 240-250 microseconds, making Ethernet suitable for almost all factory applications, the company said.
One of the reasons Ethernet has been slow to be adopted in the industrial area is because of concerns about response time, said Chris Heyden, product manager. Most industrial automation applications require determinism -- the ability to guarantee a certain response time to and from networked devices -- which propriatary networks fieldbus solutions can deliver. But fieldbuses are expensive and less flexible. Embedded Internet applications also are being deployed, said Heyden, but "stack crawling" -- moving data through the seven-layer TCP/IP stack -- slows the process down.
"Millisecond or tens-of-millisecond delays in response times are not acceptable in many industrial applications," he said.
Because Ethernet is an open standard and can work with Microsoft Windows and PC platforms, more manufacturers are moving toward it as communications standard for the factory.
"On the OEM side, they want to reduce their costs and time to market," Heyden explained. Factory equipment suppliers are looking for ways to implement Ethernet to meet this demand. "They are getting dragged into it by their users because users want more flexibility."
While not considered deterministic, 100BaseT and Gigabit Ethernet networks have enough bandwidth to deliver the faster response rates needed.
Typically, Ethernet-connected devices offer a response time of several milliseconds, which is unacceptable for many real-time applications, said Heyden. NETsilicon's NET+Fast IP and NET+Works provide an "Ethernet bridge," by associating a data buffer auto-reply or an automated processing routine with particular IP ports.
NET+Fast IP integrates seamlessly into the NET+ARM architecture, NETsilicon's family of dedicated network processing hardware. NET+ARM is designed around the ARM7 core with on-chip Ethernet MAC (media access controller) and Direct Memory Access block. NET+ARM processors range from 5 to 40 million instructions per second.
In a lab test conducted by Metrica Labs Inc. of Portland, Ore., the NET+Fast IP/NET+Works integrated environment consistently generated responses of 240-250 microseconds -- an order of magnitude better, said Heyden.
"We now have a technology that removes all doubts about the use of Ethernet for real-time industrial automation applications," said Michael Evensen, NETsilicon's vice president of industrial automation worldwide and embedded systems for Europe. "NET+Fast IP meets or exceeds response times from proprietary vendor-specific fieldbuses and paves the way for Ethernet and Internet protocols on the factory floor."
He addes that this solution would be especially suitable for the oil and gas, power distribution, and control industries for such applications as intelligent instruments, valve actuators, and robotics.
"One of the objections to the use of Internet protocols in industrial automation has been the slowness of the IP communications stack," explains Dick Caro, vice president at ARC Advisory Group, an industrial automation research firm in Dedham, Mass. "NETsilicon has addressed this directly with a high efficiency solution combined with the already low latency time and high speed of their NET+Works offering, a standard Ethernet solution appropriate for real-time applications."
Caro added, "Many of our clients are in the process of implementing TCP/IP into their products and will undoubtedly be very interested in this technology."
NET+Fast IP software is available as an optional module in the NET+Works Embedded Networking Solutions architecture. A run-time license is required and is priced at $3.00 in 10,000 quantities.