Ethernet-APL: Industry’s path forward

Sept. 3, 2021
Keith Larson speaks with Paul Sereiko, Marketing Director, FieldComm Group

Keith Larson, editor of Control magazine and ControlGlobal.com talks about Ethernet-APL and what it means for the future of field communications in the process industries is Paul Sereiko, director of marketing and product strategy the FieldComm Group


Keith Larson: For more than 10 years now, the process automation supplier community has been working on new networking technology that would finally allow Ethernet to be extended to field instruments, with power and communications over a single pair of wires and in hazardous areas typically. In this past spring at the ACHEMA Pulse virtual trade show, a consortium of suppliers and all the key standards development organizations announced that specifications and chip sets for Ethernet advanced physical layer, or Ethernet-APL, were ready for prime time. But what comes next?

Hello, this is Keith Larson, editor of Control magazine and ControlGlobal.com. Welcome to this Solution Spotlight episode of our Control Amplified podcast, sponsored today by Emerson. With me today to talk about Ethernet-APL and what it means for the future of field communications in the process industries is Paul Sereiko, director of marketing and product strategy for the FieldComm Group.

Welcome, Paul, and a real pleasure to chat with you today.

Paul Sereiko: Well, you know, thanks a lot, Keith. And in addition to my role at FieldComm Group, I've also been very active in the Ethernet-APL marketing committee over the past several years. So, anytime that I get an opportunity to talk about the profound change that I think Ethernet-APL will eventually bring to the process automation business, I'm welcome to do so.

Keith: Yes. Absolutely. There's a method to my madness recruiting you to speak at this podcast, obviously. We've both been involved obviously in developments on the Ethernet-APL front, you even more so than me, but in a just completed survey of Control readers, most of our respondents said they were just somewhat aware of this new technology. Obviously, it's brand new, that's to be understood. Part of the purpose behind this podcast is really bring people up to speed in what the potential is and how that can work on their behalf. I'll have a little bit more on that survey a bit later, but to start things off, maybe you can just review what unique advantages Ethernet-APL brings to field communications. And then we can talk about the survey maybe a little bit more after that.

Paul: Yeah. You know, I'll do that, but first, I actually want to say that I was pleased with the percent of people that indicated that they were somewhat aware with Ethernet-APL. We had asked this question on a survey back in early 2019. I mean, literally, over 80% of the respondents were either unaware or had a limited awareness of Ethernet-APL, so I kind of count these results as a win for the hard work that the Ethernet-APL marketing team has been doing over the past several years. So, I was excited by the results, you know.

But with regards to your question, I think it's important to realize that for quite some time now, instrument and infrastructure suppliers have really wanted extend Ethernet networking capabilities to the field level, but doing this requires a physical layer that meets the demanding needs of process automation.

And you'd mentioned a couple of these things in your introduction. Deployment in hazardous areas is certainly one, support for long cable runs is another, and, you know, copper is expensive, so a two-wire solution is really something that's needed because that's what they use today. And those two wires have to carry both power and communications. And unfortunately, the technology and, you know by that I mean the standards and components that would require to implement high-speed Ethernet-APL with these requirements, you don't know what these requirements, it just hasn't been available until now. So, in and of itself, the Ethernet-APL physical layer is unique in that it just meets these installation and deployment requirements for the process automation industry. But probably, you know, the most notable additional advantage is speed, which we haven't talked about yet. But Ethernet-APL is a 10-megabit per second standard communications rate. And, you know, those are digital transmission speeds that are orders of magnitude faster than kind of precursor process automation physical layers, like 4 to 20 mA, which is really bound by 1200 or, you know, 9,600 baud modems and Fieldbus, which is faster, but nowhere near 10 megabits per second.

Keith: Right. Yeah. No, that makes a lot of sense. And I think one of the things that's interesting about the Ethernet at this layer is the ability to accommodate multiple protocols and do things that are uniquely Ethernet skills compared to our legacy environments in the industrial space. That's for sure.

Paul: Yeah. Yeah.

Keith: In that survey that we did of Control readers, all of these characteristics were really identified as important. And for those of you who get Control magazine will have some... This is better fodder for graphs and bar charts and things like that. So some of this stuff, you can pick that up on our September issue when that comes out, or come back to the website in September, and you'll be able to see the full survey results in detail.

Faster data rates and hazardous areas suitability certainly came out on top. I do think that the fact that Ethernet-APL is protocol-independent can get confusing when you talk about accommodating multiple protocols over the same wire. Can you kind of unpack that a little bit on what that means from a practical perspective? I don't think people are used to having, in the context of field instruments, the ability to have different things going on in the same pair of wires. 

Paul: Honestly, that's going to require kind of a mindset change on the part of engineering firms and process automation systems designers, and things like that. Because, you know, we like to say in the Ethernet-APL marketing committee that Ethernet-APL is just a physical layer, you know, it's just that. And so what's happened in the past, in process automation at least, is that the physical layer and the application layers have been kind of coupled together. So, in 4 to 20 mA, you've got HART, which is the application layer sitting on top of the 4 to 20 mA and Foundation Fieldbus and Profibus-PA, you have a digital protocol embedded into the Fieldbus physical layer. Now, with Ethernet-APL, that metaphor has been kind of blown apart.

So, the physical layers actually decoupled from the application layer. And, you know, it should be intuitively obvious to anybody that has an IP network deployed in their home and, you know, you have printers on it, and cameras on it, and doorbells on it, and computers on it, and things like that, and all of those devices are using different application protocols, but they're using a common media access and transport protocol, which is IP, internet protocol, basically. So, we've decoupled that with Ethernet-APL, and I've got an example that I want to talk about because I think that this decoupling is going to ultimately enable much [more] flexible and simpler network designs, network infrastructure designs, and eventually new instrumentation and instrument architectures as well.

But let's first address the flexible network design topic. Our 2018 Plant of the Year, FieldComm Group has an annual program called the Plant of the Year. I know you're very familiar with it because you publish a story about it in the FieldComm Group supplement every year in Control. But anyway, our Plant of the Year winner back in 2018 was the Shell Prelude floating liquid natural gas facility located off the coast of Western Australia, well off the coast of Western Australia. Now, this plant has 8,000 Foundation Fieldbus devices for control, 4,500 HART devices for safety instrumented systems and firing gas systems, and over 1,000 wireless HART transmitters, I believe, for doing various monitoring and optimization, in those types in analytic applications. And then they've got a whole software architecture, analytics software, and stuff that runs alongside, you know, on these instruments, like valve link and other analytics software. So, you know, to engineer this system, the integrator that needed to do this, they needed to at least deploy wiring and infrastructure for HART, wiring and infrastructure for FF, and Ethernet for the top end of the WirelessHART gateways.

So, you have three separate networking infrastructures in the facility, at least. Now, you know, if the facility were instead based on Ethernet-APL, a single network could be deployed, and the engineering firm could then pick kind of the best automation protocol for the various applications implemented in the facility, but it all runs over the same network infrastructure. So maybe you want to use Profinet for motor control, HART-IP for basic instrumentation and control, and maybe Ethernet-IP for complex analytical instrumentation and the software associated with that. Well, that's just an example, but you can imagine the flexibility that's being gained by deploying an Ethernet-only architecture into that facility. 

Keith: And then there's other types of devices that we haven't really envisioned having part. A camera, let's say,  and still leverage that same infrastructure.

Paul: Yeah, yeah. Cameras would be a good. You know, a basic video camera's a great example. What about a thermal imaging camera? Just think about the various things that are sitting on your home network today or your corporate network, and imagine how an industrial process automation focused implementation or instantiation of them would be, that's now enabled because of the Ethernet-APL physical layer and its ability to be deployed in intrinsically safe, hazardous areas. That's a huge. It's a huge game changer.

So, the other thing, I think, it's important to realize though, is that all of this is going to be a journey and, you know, we've just kind of described a gee-whiz scenario. But in reality, Ethernet-APL, it's going to take time to gain market share. It's a conservative industry, the process automation industry, and, you know, it's kind of incumbent upon standards, development organizations like FieldComm Group and suppliers like Emerson to provide a reasonable roadmap for the journey that a user will undertake to adopt the technology. I can't overestimate how important it is to not oversell this at this point in time.

Keith: Yeah. And that makes a lot of sense.

Paul: Mm-hmm.

Keith: We also asked our readers to score the relative merits of seven different value propositions that APL addresses, and the first among relative equals, they all deemed important, was fast and easy device installation and commissioning. I was surprised to see that rank so highly versus something more oriented on ongoing operations, really focused on the project activities upfront. Do you think that's kind of a symptom that people are used to interfacing with their smart transmitters only when they're installing them and commissioning versus on a regular basis, or what do you think is going on there?

Paul: Yeah. You know, well, I think you brought up a point when you introduced the question that I think is really cool, which is that we mentioned these seven different value propositions, and all of them were fairly equally distributed in terms of importance. And I like your term "first among equals," but, you know, I think fast and easy device installation and commissioning, it's kind of the low-hanging fruit feature, you know, speed is something that's easy to understand. So, I'm not really all that surprised by this. And, you know, the place where speed is the most obvious is when you're installing and commissioning hundreds of instruments. I think about the Prelude facility that we mentioned earlier with, you know, tens of thousands of devices, you know, as diligent as I'm sure the engineering team was in preconfiguring these devices, I'm sure that during startup, they found some things that needed to change and, you know, there you are, you know. That takes days.

Keith: Yeah. It's not like downloading an app on your smartphone, which is a much bigger file. And we're also used to that happening so quickly in our personal lives.

Paul: Exactly. You know, I just got a 5G phone too, and I'm like, "Wow, this is fantastic."

Keith: What can I do next?

Paul: Yeah. Exactly, exactly. You know, so speed is kind of a low-hanging fruit feature, and using speed, you know, to make this onerous task of commissioning devices, much less onerous, and frankly much less costly and much less labor-intensive, and probably much less prone to error, is a big benefit. I think there are other speed-related features that will become apparent as the industry partners that are part of the Ethernet-APL initiative begin to announce new devices. And, you know, honestly, one of the things that I'm looking forward to is to see, you know, how device vendors might choose to incorporate, you know, DDs, drivers, application software, FDI device packages, which could bundle all of those things together on their device, as opposed to as apart from the device, you know, in a catalog of drivers, you know. And when you and I, when we install a new piece of software or a mouse or something, one of the first things the system does is it goes out to see whether there is an updated version of it, and then it installs it. And it does all of that kind of in the background. And that is something that's enabled by having high-speed capabilities. And I think that over time, we'll see instrumentation architectures actually change and include more onboard software than they do today. And, obviously, there's cost issues, there's memory issues, there's a whole host of issues. So, I don't think you're going to be buying 'em, you know, three months from now, but in time, this is one of the benefits directly that are enabled through Ethernet-APL.

Keith: Mm-hmm. So, something more like what we experienced with the printer nowadays, where you don't have to go to the website and download a driver, you might want to do that from some more advanced features, but usually, you plug it in and it handshakes recognizes and away you go. 

Paul: Yeah. And if it needs to update something, it does.

Keith: Right. It doesn't even ask, it doesn't wait.

Paul: Yeah.

Keith: I didn't think one of the interesting things too, among these value propositions that was also considered quite important was Ethernet, because it is Ethernet, it allows those kinds of already established cybersecurity models that are established in the Ethernet world to be applied at the device level, which is, as most of us don't understand, that, you know, the older digital protocols don't have that inherent security built in. And yet, we also asked about significant barriers, and one of the barriers was also the fact that using Ethernet opens it up to cybersecurity risk. So, can you kind of square that apparent contradiction for our listeners today?

Paul: Yeah, yeah, I can try. You know, I think that if a given instrument is IP addressable, if that's kind of the given, then it better have great cybersecurity. So, you know, again, I think it's the job of the suppliers and the SDOs to evolve the technology and then educate and overcome what's clearly going to be, and rightfully so, hesitation on the part of end-users to drop IP addressable devices into their plant. You know, and maybe the first thing they'll do is they'll do it on monitoring applications or optimization applications, and stay away from control, just because of that hesitancy. But it's also incumbent upon the SDOs, the standards development organizations, like FieldComm Group, to make sure that, you know, we've got our ducks in a row in terms of our specifications.

We just released late last year a new version of the HART specification of which HART-IP is a component, and where previously the HART-IP portion of the specification said, "Your device shall have security." The new version says, "It shall have this type of security, and it shall do this, and it shall be able to do this. And we're going to test for all of this and validate that it's there before we grant you a registration certificate that says, 'Your HART-IP device is certified.'" Now I'd be happy to discuss all of these details and PS key encryption and certificates and all of that sort of stuff. But I don't really understand any of that stuff. So, if you want to do a future podcast with Wally Pratt and geek out on our IP security, I'd be happy to introduce the two of you.

Keith: Sure. Sure. I know Wally. Well, I think that's better for the bar, I think, than a podcast, or maybe...

Paul: You're probably right.

Keith: For the bar conversation.

Paul: You're probably right. Yeah.

Keith: But that's good that some people know how to do that. There's no doubt.

Paul: Yeah.

Keith: I thought another interesting comment that was ranked highly as well, and is one of the really aspects of Ethernet-APL and what it opens up, is the ability to integrate traditional as well as APL devices. You mentioned that, obviously, the Shell environment where they had a very mixed architecture with APL, how is it that you can kind of go forward and still accommodate maybe traditional analog devices with the old frequency-shift keying into that FSK?

Paul: I'm impressed you know that.

Keith: Exactly. But then Ethernet-APL devices that also speak HART-IP, so there is some commonality there. But then you've really got a third physical layer as it were with WirelessHART, you know, going over the airwaves around us. So, how does that kind of commonality across those three different modalities accommodate a path forward where if you've got all this existing technology, how can you start to incorporate other new technologies over Ethernet-APL in a mixed environment?

Paul: Yeah. You know, this kind of gets to the point where we really need to do a good job of describing the journey that an end-user will be on if they plan to adopt this technology. And, you know, I went through this a little bit in the early days of WirelessHART in ISA100, when I was involved in an operating company that was actually making products in that space. And, you know, we made some recommendations. There were some pretty strong recommendations about where you should use wireless, where you might not want to use wireless, how you might want to evaluate if you're going to use wireless. And I think, ultimately, the same thing is going to happen here with regards to Ethernet-APL.

So, you know, what the industry would love to do is have everything in the plant, including all of your critical control loops, operating under an IP addressable system. But I think, it's going to be a while before the end-user community, particularly in areas where, you know, there are hazardous environments, which is the primary target area for Ethernet-APL to make that leap. So it's important to have a strategy that allows for some commonality as a company migrates from a pure 4 to 20 mA plus, you know, clip-on in the field monitoring and diagnostics and configuration and maintenance and stuff, to this fully digital solution. And, you know, the good news about at least the HART ecosystem is that it's very well known in the industry. So if you're going to be learning a new networking infrastructure, you know, with Ethernet/IP, but it'd be nice to have some familiarity with the application software layer. And that application software layer is more often than not HART in the process automation industry today.

So, you know, the asset management system, the control systems, all the things that you use in all the work processes that you use today in HART need to kind of smoothly migrate over into the HART-IP world. And, you know, that'll remove kind of a big barrier to entry for some users because they won't have to learn, you know, new automation protocols or new techniques. So, I think the single software environment is one of the big things. And, you know, I guess, I would reference the Ethernet-APL video demo that was done at the ACHEMA show. And there is a segment in that video where Emerson showed how, in a single control loop, they had 4 to 20 mA device and Ethernet-APL device. And from the perspective of the operator or the asset management system, there was no difference. You know, you wouldn't be able to tell one from the other, unless you drilled deeper to do so.

Keith: Right. That makes a lot of sense. But I think some familiarity with the data models that are part of HART and have been part of HART for, what, 40 years now, some have built familiarity in how those models are presented. And, you know, it's just like...it's a semantic model basically, kind of like OPC UA about semantic models as well. The transport, the language is still there, even if you're speaking over a different technology, the language is still unifying.

Paul: Exactly.

Keith: And speaking of that, I mean, HART has come a long way since it was first introduced back in the '80s, and HART-IP includes now an integrated security model, which I think you mentioned before, and that'll help address concerns over increased cybersecurity risk. What other aspects of HART-IP or Ethernet can help streamline the process industries' journey into this brave new world as we journey forward?

Paul: Yeah, well one of the kind of, I guess, I'll call it a major initiative in process automation right now is being spearheaded by the NAMUR Organization with the NAMUR Open Architecture and the associated use cases and requirements for meeting the desires of that architecture. And, you know, much of it is focused, not on the core process control systems, but on the monitoring and optimization systems that are enabled through digital transformation in IIoT and all of that sort of thing. 

Keith: That kind of second alternate path for all that other data that's beyond the control. Yeah.

Paul: Yeah. You know, we've seen the diagrams with the triangle, with the wedge attached to it, and, you know, in that wedge where you have the plant monitoring and optimization, and then the path upward to the enterprise-wide monitoring and optimization, you end up with, you know, a lot of new applications, new analytics and things like that. But all of that is predicated on having a protocol at the instrument level that is rich in diagnostics and maintenance and configurations capabilities. And, you know, HART has always been perceived as a diagnostics and configuration protocol with, you know, 4 to 20 mA still being the predominant method of control. And there's a lot of merit to the claim of HART being probably having the most built-out diagnostic capabilities of any process automation protocol.

So, that means that the underpinnings of providing the data for these NOA use cases and the requirements and all of that sort of thing has been there, and it's been there for decades. So, the challenge with HART has always been getting the information out of these 4 to 20-mA 1200 devices. And I think that Ethernet-APL is going to dramatically simplify that, there's not going to be a lot of gateways. There's not going to be, you know, a lot of translation of data between different levels of the network, and it's going to simplify things. And you know, what better way to take advantage of that than with the protocol that already has all of the bells and whistles needed for doing advanced diagnostics and analytics and things already built-in?

Keith: Yeah. That makes perfect sense to me. That's for sure. Although we do have a ways to go.

Paul: Yeah. You know, but I want to talk about that. We do have a ways to go in just a little bit. You didn't ask a specific question about it, but I think it's really important to realize the workforce changes that are already underway and will continue to be underway in the process automation industry as a younger workforce takes the place of guys that frankly were very familiar with using 4 to 20-mA transmitters and things like that. And, you know, as that happens, you're going to bring in a workforce that's going to be more thirsty for knowledge, and more willing to use these new technologies, and more capable of walking up to an instrument that may have Bluetooth capability and being able to connect to it and talk to it, and work with it. So, you know, I seethe Ethernet-APL technology coming out at exactly the right time for the market to transition as we continue this kind of ongoing cycle of retirement and rejuvenation in process automation.

Keith: And those people coming into the profession, if they've got any kind of networking training, it's probably on Ethernet, that's probably for sure.

Paul: Yeah. Exactly. You know, come on, it's our kids, right? You know, we tell them, "How do I get this camera to work?"

Keith: We ask them. Absolutely. No doubt about it.

Paul: Exactly.

Keith: Well, it's going to be an exciting journey. And I think the timing is good, but many issues to resolve. And we're starting the journey today with this podcast to help us spread the word so people can understand better where to contextualize these products and new architectures that are coming out from the supplier community as we move forward. So, Paul, I want to really thank you so much for sharing your insights with us today.

Paul: You're very welcome. It's been fun. And I look forward to listening to the output and reading the content in the September issue.

Keith: Sounds great. For those of you listening, thanks also for tuning in. Thanks also to Emerson for sponsoring this episode. I'm Keith Larson, and you've been listening to a Control Amplified Podcast. Thanks for joining us. And if you've enjoyed this episode, you can subscribe at the iTunes Store or at Google Podcasts. Plus, you can find the full archive of past episodes at controlglobal.com. Signing off until next time. Thanks again, Paul. Really appreciate it.

Paul: You're welcome.

For more, tune into Control Amplified: The Process Automation Podcast.

About the Author

Control Amplified: | Control Amplified: The Process Automation Podcast

The Control Amplified Podcast offers in-depth interviews and discussions with industry experts about important topics in the process control and automation field, and goes beyond Control's print and online coverage to explore underlying issues affecting users, system integrators, suppliers and others in these industries.

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