Motorola controller pushes Ethernet into everyday equipment
Ethernet, the technology that spawned the PC networking revolution, may now be poised to network a new breed of industrial and commercial applications, ranging from manufacturing plants to coal mines to fast-food restaurants.
In a move that's bound to spread Ethernet's already enormous influence, Motorola Inc. said this week that it is taking Ethernet connectivity from board level to chip level by rolling out a 32-bit microcontroller with on-chip Ethernet and CAN interfaces.
The new microcontroller, believed to be the first of its kind, could simplify Ethernet networking and bring connectivity to a variety of systems that have used it only sparingly or not at all up to now, such as bar code systems, exercise equipment, fire alarms, lighting controllers, mining systems, and vending machines, as well as dishwashers, ovens and refrigerators in fast-food restaurants.
Motorola's new chip adds fuel to a parallel announcement from Rockwell Automation Inc. which said it is partnering with networking giant Cisco Systems Inc. in an effort to accelerate the adoption of Ethernet connectivity on the factory floor. Rockwell, one of the world's biggest makers of factory automation equipment, plans to leverage Cisco's capabilities in Ethernet switching.
"Ethernet is becoming the interface of choice in a lot of environments that did not traditionally use it," said Manrique Brenes, product manager for the Ethernet Access Group at Cisco. "The reason is its sheer economies of scale; there are literally hundreds of millions of Ethernet ports already deployed."
Food equipment solution
Motorola's move to integrate Ethernet connectivity onto a microcontroller puts the company in lockstep with a trend that has been spreading throughout several industries during the past three years.
Last year, the North American Food Equipment Manufacturers (NAFEM) published an industry standard aimed at guiding equipment makers that want to add networking capabilities to the systems sold to fast-food restaurants.
"We all knew that we were headed toward interconnecting the equipment, and there was a need for a ubiquitous low-cost way for us to do it," said Mario Ceste, president of SCK, a division of Food Automation Service Techniques Inc. and chairman of NAFEM's technical liaison committee.
Because Motorola's microcontroller shows promise as a low-cost solution, some NAFEM members have already worked with the semiconductor giant on the application of the new chip to their food equipment.
The microcontroller, known as the ColdFire MCF5282, includes a 10/100Mbps Ethernet MAC, CAN interface, and 512KB of Flash memory. By combining 32-bit processing power with Ethernet capabilities, the MCF5282 can operate as a Web server on any Ethernet network running TCP/IP. When doing so, Motorola engineers said, it can serve up simple text and graphic pages to any client machine, such as a PC, PDA, Unix workstation, or cell phone running a Web browser.
The new device can also act as a gateway or router for networks running over CAN or RS-485 interfaces. With those networks connected to Ethernet, equipment can be monitored from a PC host residing anywhere on the Internet. Because the MCF5282 incorporates Ethernet capabilities at chip level, rather than board level, NAFEM member Ceste said it simplifies the process of networking food equipment.
"Up to now, you couldn't find a single-chip microcontroller solution that would provide an Ethernet port and stack," Ceste said. "So if you wanted to make a NAFEM-compliant toaster, you would have been burdened with adding a daughterboard to the product, and then you would have driven up the cost of the toaster by $50."
Kitchen equipment makers said the new technology provides a sorely needed solution for restaurant owners who are demanding connected appliances. Such appliances, the owners say, would help them document their food processing and monitor the everyday activities of their businesses.
By linking fryers and ovens to Web pages, restaurant managers hope to monitor cooking temperatures, as well as routine maintenance issues, such as keeping track of the time between cooking-oil changes. This would streamline their operations and simultaneously insulate them from potential health-related problems, such as an outbreak of salmonella poisoning.
"All of the things that sound Jetson-like to the consumer are going to be critical for commercial restaurants," Ceste said.
Restaurant owners want connectivity, Ceste said, because it makes it easier for them to know if, for example, their dishwasher water is hot enough or if it has enough sanitizer. Connectivity also lets them know if the compressor on the refrigerator is dying or if the pizza oven is about to break down.
"If I'm a pizza parlor owner, and my pizza oven breaks down on a Friday night, there's a good chance I'm out of business," Ceste said. "Connectivity makes it easier for me to foresee those problems."
Built-in networking capability
Motorola engineers said, however, that the applications for such technology go far beyond food equipment. The reasons are cost and simplicity.
Up to now, systems integrators have made Ethernet connections, but they've done so with a mixture of discrete chips and single-board computers. Motorola's intention is to change that by placing all the necessary components on the microcontroller. Motorola's new device sells for $17.86 in 10,000-piece quantities, which company engineers said is significantly less than a systems integrator would pay for discrete components.
"Now, if you choose to network a new piece of equipment, the capability will be already built-in," said John Sansing, standard product operations manager for 32-bit controllers at Motorola. "We expect this to take Ethernet into applications no one has even thought of yet."
One key area of Ethernet applicability is industrial networks. Some of the biggest makers of automation equipment, such as Omron Electronics Inc., Rockwell Automation, and Siemens Energy & Automation Inc., have worked hard the past three years to expand the Ethernet capabilities of their products.
Rockwell said this week that 30 percent of its product line is Ethernet-enabled, and the company expects that number to jump to 70 percent by the end of 2003. Similarly, Siemens said 70 percent of its product line, excluding sensors, is now Ethernet-enabled, and Omron said 10 percent of its products can be directly linked to Ethernet. In contrast, the percentage of Ethernet-enabled products on the factory floor three years ago was virtually zero.
The sudden rise in Ethernet capabilities points to a huge potential market on the factory floor. Manufacturing executives said such capabilities give them a window into the operation of the manufacturing machinery in their plants.
"There's been a tendency to view Ethernet as the universal network of the future, replacing industrial networks such as DeviceNet, Profibus and Sercos," said Tom Bullock, president of Industrial Controls Consulting Inc.
That's why companies such as Rockwell are also forging alliances with networking companies such as Cisco. Rockwell said Cisco had become a partner in its Encompass Program, which helps users identify and qualify third-party components, to provide Ethernet switches to Rockwell's factory automation customers. Rockwell said it recommends switches over hubs or other connection methods for real-time control applications.
Cisco executives said that they, too, see a big market opportunity in factory automation. Ethernet, they said, provides connectivity to the outside world that can't be obtained with industrial device networks. It also offers a huge bandwidth advantage.
"Devices that are more intelligent are likely to migrate to Ethernet, simply because of the bandwidth availability," said Brenes of Cisco. "Traditional buses in today's manufacturing plants are running at 500kbps, whereas with Ethernet, you're getting 100Mbps for every device."
In the next few years, however, Brenes said he believes Ethernet will migrate far beyond the factory floor. "We already have deployments for cameras in train stations and on freeways, as well as in coal mines and steel mills, so that companies can monitor their machinery," he said. "A lot of new services are arriving on top of Ethernet, making it a natural choice for those applications."
- Charles J. Murray
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