The Top 5 Challenges Supporting Multiple Communications Protocols in your Industrial Devices and How to Overcome Them

If you’re an industrial equipment (sensors/actuators) manufacturer whose devices operate on one of the many available types of Fieldbus networks, these are the pain points you will likely experience if you decide to support a different industrial communications protocol.


Multiple industrial communication protocols (Fieldbus and variants of industrial ethernet) are used throughout factories worldwide. However, it’s likely that you, like many other device manufacturers, only have expertise in one (or a small subset) of these. This means you face a steep learning curve if a new customer opportunity requires your devices to work on a different Fieldbus network. In addition, protocols specify rules about data rates, packet sizes and error handling. So, if you start from scratch, you will need to get up to speed quickly on the often complex technical details while simultaneously figuring out your implementation strategy.


There’s a good chance your device uses a hardware module for your existing Fieldbus protocol, as this is the ‘tried-and-trusted’ approach many companies use for industrial communications. These proprietary application-specific integrated circuits (ASIC) implement the selected protocol at the physical and data link layers. While they offer a convenient solution, several shortcomings are associated with their use. For example, some suppliers insist on an additional royalty payment for every ASIC you install in a device, impacting your profit margins. In addition, if a prospective customer wants to use one of your devices on a different Fieldbus network, you must identify a new ASIC to implement it and undertake a costly, time-consuming and potentially risky redesign of your system board.


If your new network is a version of industrial ethernet (e.g. Profinet), it’s tempting to think you only need an Ethernet PHY transceiver and a software stack. However, installing and debugging a stack by yourself is not always straightforward. It will likely require modification for the intended application, and you will also need to upload a device description file for the new protocol into your system microcontroller. This file contains information about the device’s identity, parameters, process data, diagnosis data, communication properties and the design of the user interface engineering tools.


To ensure interoperability and conformity of automation equipment from different field device manufacturers, certification by an accredited test laboratory is mandatory for some industrial devices using Fieldbus communications protocols. During the certification process, devices are tested to determine if they comply with the applicable standards and to ensure they function seamlessly within an automation system. The effort required to achieve certification varies depending on the technology used. If you are redesigning your devices to operate a different Fieldbus protocol, you may need to factor this into your planning. Pre-certification is recommended because it can significantly reduce the potential for problems during certification testing, but this may require costly laboratory equipment.


Many hardware modules are proprietary and can typically only be sourced from one supplier. This makes price negotiations difficult and means your supply chain is vulnerable to unexpected interruption if they cannot honour your orders. In that case, it is unlikely that you will quickly locate a different supplier to provide you with a pin-compatible alternative to your current ASIC, leaving you with no alternative other than to cease production until supply resumes.


Module 01 is an open hardware design pre-loaded with U-Phy, pre-certified firmware developed by RT-Labs to simplify supporting multiple fieldbus and other network protocols in various industrial devices (sensors and actuators). It is a flexible and royalty-free communications IC which can be easily integrated into industrial devices and has been designed to run RT-Lab’s U-Phy multi-protocol firmware. It enables industrial devices to join Profinet and EtherCAT networks, with the added advantage that the embedded Profinet stack has been pre certified. Furthermore, RT-Labs intends to add to the number of supported protocols, which will be available post-purchase for no additional cost. Switching between protocols requires minimal effort, but RT-Labs provide comprehensive technical support to manufacturers integrating Module01 into their designs. It has been designed with a compact footprint and connector placements, making it easy to embed even into products with small enclosures. RT-Labs provide schematics and footprints for free, making integrating Module 01 into existing designs straightforward.

U-Phy Module 01