Making the switch to Programmable Logic Controllers - what do you need to know?
Programmable Logic Controllers (PLCs) have a history that dates back to the 1960s, yet there are still many in the automation industry who've had little experience with them. When it comes to learning about these products, or making the jump from other areas of automation to applications that involve PLCs, the transition can sometimes be difficult. It's hard to know where to begin, and if you've been charged with the task of selecting one, it can be even harder to know which manufacturer or model to choose. To make the switch to PLCs, it's important to have a basic understanding of what they are, what they do, and which PLC is right for your application.
What are PLCs and how do they work?
PLCs are often defined as miniature industrial computers that contain hardware and software that is used to perform control functions. A PLC consists of two basic sections: the central processing unit (CPU) and the input/output interface system. The CPU, which controls all PLC activity, can further be broken down into the processor and memory system. The input/output system is physically connected to field devices (e.g., switches, sensors, etc.) and provides the interface between the CPU and the information providers (inputs) and controllable devices (outputs).
To operate, the CPU "reads" input data from connected field devices through the use of its input interfaces, and then "executes", or performs the control program that has been stored in its memory system. Programs are typically created in ladder logic, a language that closely resembles a relay-based wiring schematic, and are entered into the CPU's memory prior to operation. Finally, based on the program, the PLC "writes", or updates output devices via the output interfaces. This process, also known as scanning, continues in the same sequence without interruption, and changes only when a change is made to the control program.
A brief history
The first PLC can be traced back to 1968 when Bedford Associates, a company in Bedford, MA, developed a device called a Modular Digital Controller for General Motors (GM). The MODICON, as it was known, was developed to help GM eliminate traditional relay-based machine control systems. Because relays are mechanical devices, they have limited lifetimes. They are also cumbersome, especially in large applications where thousands of them may exist. With so many relays to work with, wiring and troubleshooting could be quite complicated.
Since the MODICON was an electronic device, not a mechanical one, it was perfect for GM's requirements, as well as for many other manufacturers and users of control equipment. With less wiring, simpler troubleshooting, and easy programming, PLC technology caught on quickly.
As PLC technology has advanced, so have programming languages and communications capabilities, along with many other important features. Today's PLCs offer faster scan times, space efficient high-density input/output systems, and special interfaces to allow non-traditional devices to be attached directly to the PLC. Not only can they communicate with other control systems, they can also perform reporting functions and diagnose their own failures, as well as the failure of a machine or process.
Size is typically used to categorize today's PLC, and is often an indication of the features and types of applications it will accommodate. Small, non-modular PLCs (also known as fixed I/O PLCs) generally have less memory and accommodate a small number of inputs and outputs in fixed configurations. Modular PLCs have bases or racks that allow installation of multiple I/O modules, and will accommodate more complex applications.
When you consider all of
the advances PLCs have made and all the benefits they offer, it's easy to see
how they've become a standard in the industry, and why they will most likely
continue their success in the future.
Which one is right for you?
So you've learned a little bit about PLCs and have decided that a PLC-based control system is the right choice for you. Now what?
The next step is to select the right system. But how do you do that? Where do you begin when there are so many manufacturers and so many different PLC models?
A drawing of the machine or process is a good start. This can help identify field devices and physical requirements for hardware locations. From the drawing, you can determine how many analog and/or discrete devices you will have. Discrete devices are those that operate in only two states: on and off. Examples of discrete devices include pushbuttons and switches. Analog devices, such as thermocouples, process transducers, and display meters, will supply or accept signals within a specified range, typically 0-10 volts or 4-20 mA.
Once the field device requirements and hardware locations are defined, you can begin the process of choosing a PLC that will meet your requirements. The worksheet on the following page is a basic summary of considerations for determining the type of PLC you will need, regardless of which manufacturers you are evaluating. Armed with this information, the next steps will be selecting, designing, programming, and installing your system.
When choosing a PLC, there are many factors to consider that, if not properly planned for, may affect your system's performance after installation. With proper planning, the selection of a PLC system can be done with relative ease.
For more information on considerations for choosing a PLC, see our PLC Selection Consideration Guidelines and Worksheet.
For information on choosing an AutomationDirect DirectLOGIC PLC, see the DirectLOGIC PLC Selection Guide.