Ethernet-APL—the missing link to enable digitization in the field

July 8, 2021

In this interview, Dr. Kai Krüning from BASF tells us how Ethernet-APL can help drive digitization and seamless communication within the field of process automation. Furthermore, he points out why Ethernet-APL is the missing link to enable digitization in the field in the process industry.

As the "missing link to enable digitization in the field," which technical specifications and advantages of Ethernet-APL would you highlight for potential users?

Having a look at Ethernet-APL from a user's perspective, there are many advantages, but for me three of them are the most critical. Starting with the cabling: Type A cables are needed for Ethernet-APL. That's the same cable type we are currently using for our fieldbus installations—giving us the chance to easily migrate existing fieldbus installations. Furthermore, it allows mixed installations of fieldbus and Ethernet-APL. The second advantage I would like to highlight is the so-called 2-WISE standard. 2-WISE stands for "2-Wire Intrinsically Safe Ethernet." This allows all users an easy installation of Ethernet-APL in hazardous areas. Data can be transmitted over long distances with faster speed (10 MBit/s). 

On top of that, Ethernet-APL is a full Ethernet standard and not just created for the process industry. It fits into all other Ethernet standards—also within the ones which will be created in the future. That's why Ethernet-APL is a future-proofed technology with a long lifecycle. 

Dr. Krüning, you just mentioned the faster speed of Ethernet-APL. Do we really need 10 MBit/s for field devices in process automation? 

I often get this question, but I think we should shift our focus from the pure numbers (10 MBit/s) to the advantages of higher bandwidth. So far, current fieldbus installations do not provide enough bandwith to make use of different data sources in real-time. 

Let's explain this with an example: In predictive maintenance, it is important to monitor and evaluate relevant information of field devices over their entire lifecycle, e.g. static information as configuration parameters, engineering information or device identification and dynamic information such as health diagnostics and additional measurements. 

This information has to be correlated and reconciled with other data sources, e.g. 

  • process data from the DCS
  • engineering data from planning tools
  • maintenance data
  • PIMS and alarm monitoring 
  • data from the ERP System

To realize predictive maintenance, we need to use these different data sources plus historical data from field devices. This gives us the possibility to train an human expert or an AI system to predict the future system behavior. Having this example in mind, you can imagine that we need more bandwidth to simultaneously communicate with every single application on the field. Ethernet-APL provides enough bandwidth for that purpose. 

So far, we are talking about Operational Technology. But to really take advantage of digitization, we need to integrate the fast-changing IT world into the very stable OT world. Does Ethernet-APL help to solve this challenge?

Ethernet-APL can be the enabler for IT/OT convergence. With Ethernet-APL we don't have to build a connection out of every single field device onto the DCS and then to our plant-specific cloud. We are bypassing our DCS, having the advantage that we do not have to bother our control system with things it does not need for its operation. Using Ethernet-APL, all we need to do is to implement the OPC-UA Gateway, which translate the user-specific protocol (the Ethernet protocol running on Ethernet-APL) to OPC-UA. Our data can then be read by the IT easily. 

Ethernet-APL enables seamless communication and real-time data transfers with central data consolidation and analysis. The advantages are obvious: Ethernet-APL is bringing digitization towards the field level of process automation and is releasing the potential of the field. I'm looking forward to the next steps of launching Ethernet-APL and to a digitized future within the field of process automation.

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