The EtherCAT technology overcomes the system limitations of other Ethernet solutions: The Ethernet packet is no longer received, then interpreted and copied as process data at every connection. Instead, the Ethernet frame is processed on the fly: the newly developed FMMU (fieldbus memory management unit) in each slave node reads the data addressed to it, while the telegram is forwarded to the next device. Similarly, input data is inserted while the telegram passes through. The telegrams are only delayed by a few nanoseconds.

On the master side, very inexpensive, commercially available standard network interface cards (NIC) or any on board Ethernet controller can be as hardware interface. The common feature of these interfaces is data transfer to the PC via DMA (direct memory access), i.e. no CPU capacity is taken up for the network access.


The EtherCAT protocol uses an officially assigned EtherType inside the Ethernet Frame. The use of this EtherType allows transport of control data directly within the Ethernet frame without redefining the standard Ethernet frame. The frame may consist of several sub-telegrams, each serving a particular memory area of the logical process images that can be up to 4 gigabytes in size. Addressing of the Ethernet terminals can be in any order because the data sequence is independent of the physical order. Broadcast, Multicast and communication between slaves are possible.

Transfer directly in the Ethernet frame is used in cases where EtherCAT components are operated in the same subnet as the master controller and where the control software has direct access to the Ethernet controller.

However, EtherCAT applications are not limited such control systems: EtherCAT UDP packs the EtherCAT protocol into UDP/IP datagrams. This enables any control unit with Ethernet protocol stack to address EtherCAT systems. Even communication across routers into other subnets is possible. In this variant, system performance obviously depends on the real-time characteristics of the control and its Ethernet protocol implementation. The response times of the EtherCAT network itself are hardly restricted at all: The UDP datagram only has to be unpacked in the first station.


EtherCAT reaches new dimensions in network performance. Thanks to FMMU in the slave nodes and DMA access to the network card in the master, the complete protocol processing takes place within hardware and is thus independent of the run-time of protocol stacks, CPU performance or software implementation. The update time for 1000 distributed I/Os is only 30 µs. Up to 1486 bytes of process data can be exchanged with a single Ethernet frame – this is equivalent to almost 12000 digital inputs and outputs. The transfer of this data quantity only takes 300 µs.

The communication with 100 servo axes only takes 100 µs. During this time, all axes are provided with set values and control data and report their actual position and status. The distributed clock technique enables the axes to be synchronized with a deviation of significantly less than 1 microsecond.

The extremely high performance of the EtherCAT technology enables control concepts that could not be realized with classic fieldbus systems. For example, the Ethernet system can now not only deal with velocity control, but also with the current control of distributed drives. The tremendous bandwidth enables status information to be transferred with each data item. With EtherCAT, a communication technology is available that matches the superior computing capacity of modern Industrial PCs. The bus system is no longer the “bottleneck” of the control concept. Distributed I/Os are recorded faster than is possible with most local I/O interfaces.

EtherCat instead of PCI

The central PC becomes smaller and more cost effective because additional slots are not needed for interface cards since the onboard Ethernet port can be used. With increasing miniaturisation of the PC-components, the physical size of Industrial PCs is increasingly determined by the number of required slots. The bandwidth of Fast Ethernet, together with the data width of the EtherCAT communication hardware enables new directions: Interfaces that are conventionally located in the IPC are transferred to intelligent interface terminals at the EtherCAT. Apart from the decentralised I/Os, axes and control units, complex systems such as fieldbus masters, fast serial interfaces, gateways and other communication interfaces can be addressed. Ethernet devices without restriction on protocol variants can be connected via decentralised “hub terminals”. The central IPC becomes smaller and therefore more cost-effective, one Ethernet interface is sufficient for the complete communication with the periphery.


Line, tree or star: EtherCAT supports almost any topology. The bus or line structure known from the field busses thus also becomes available for Ethernet. Particularly useful for system wiring is the combination of line and branches or stubs: The required interfaces exist on the couplers; no additional switches are required. Naturally, the classic switch-based Ethernet star topology can also be used.

Wiring flexibility is further maximized through the choice of different cables. Flexible and inexpensive standard Ethernet patch cables transfer the signals optionally in Ethernet mode (100BASE-TX) or in E-Bus (LVDS) (Low Voltage Differential Signal) signal representation. Plastic potical fiber (POF) can be used in special applications for longer distances. The complete bandwidth of the Ethernet network – such as different fiber optics and copper cables – can be used in combination with switches or media converters.

Fast Ethernet (100BASE-FX) or E-Bus can be selected based on distance requirements. The Fast Ethernet physics enables a cable length of 100 m between devices while the E-Bus line is intended for modular devices. The size of the network is almost unlimited since up to 65535 devices can be connected.

Distributed Clock

Accurate synchronization is particularly important in cases where widely distributed processes require simultaneous actions. This may be the case, for example, in applications where several servo axes carry out coordinated movements simultaneously. The most powerful approach for synchronization is the accurate alignment of distributed clocks, as described in the new IEEE 1588 standard. In contrast to fully synchronous communication, where synchronization quality suffers immediately in the event of a communication fault, distributed aligned clocks have a high degree of tolerance from possible fault-related delays within the communication system.

With EtherCAT, the data exchange is completely hardware based on “mother” and “daughter” clocks. Each clock can simply and accurately determine the other clocks run-time offset because the communication utilizes a logical and full-duplex Ethernet physical ring structure. The distributed clocks are adjusted based on this value, which means that a very precise network-wide timebase with a jitter of significantly less then 1 microsecond is available.

However, high-resolution distributed clocks are not only used for synchronization, but can also provide accurate information about the local timing of the data acquisition. For example, controls frequently calculate velocities from sequentially measured positions. Particularly with very short sampling times, even a small temporal jitter in the displacement measurement leads to large step changes in velocity. With EtherCAT new, expanded data types (timestamp data type, oversampling data type) are introduced. The local time is linked to the measured value with a resolution of up to 10 ns, which is made possible by the large bandwidth offered by Ethernet. The accuracy of a velocity calculation then no longer depends on the jitter of the communication system. It is orders of magnitude better than that of measuring techniques based on jitter-free communication.

Hot Connect

The Hot Connect function enables parts of the network to be linked and decoupled or reconfigured “on the fly”. Many applications require a change in I/O configuration during operation. Examples are processing centres with changing, sensor-equipped tool systems or transfer devices with intelligent, flexible work piece carriers. The protocol structure of the EtherCAT system takes account of these changing configurations.

Safety over EtherCat

Conventionally, safety functions are realized separately from the automation network, either via hardware or using dedicated safety bus systems. Safety over EtherCAT enables safety-related communication and control communication on the same network. The safety protocol is based on the application layer of EtherCAT, without influencing the lower layers. It is certified according to IEC 61508 and meets the requirements of Safety Integrated Level (SIL) 3. The data length is variable, making the protocol equally suitable for safe I/O data and for safe drive technology. Like other EtherCAT data, the safety data can be routed without requiring safety routers or gateways. First fully certified products featuring Safety over EtherCAT are already available.


The EtherCAT technology is fully Ethernet-compatible and truly open. The protocol tolerates other Ethernet-based services and protocols on the same physical network – usually even with minimum loss of performance. There is no restriction on the type of Ethernet device that can be connected within the EtherCAT segment via a hub terminal. Devices with fieldbus interface are integrated via EtherCAT fieldbus master terminals. The UDP protocol variant can be implemented on each socket interface. The EtherCAT Technology Group ensures that each interested party can implement and use this network. EtherCAT is an international standard.