The main difference from other computers is that PLCs are armored for severe conditions (dust, moisture, heat, cold, etc) and have the facility for extensive input/output (I/O) arrangements. These connect the PLC to sensors and actuators. PLCs read limit switches, analog process variables (such as temperature and pressure), and the positions of complex positioning systems. Some even use machine vision. On the actuator side, PLCs operate electric motors, pneumatic or hydraulic cylinders, magnetic relays or solenoids, or analog outputs. The input/output arrangements may be built into a simple PLC, or the PLC may have external I/O modules attached to a computer network that plugs into the PLC.
Modular PLCs have a chassis (also called a rack) into which is placed modules with different functions. The processor and selection of I/O modules is customised for the particular application. Several racks can be administered by a single processor, and may have thousands of inputs and outputs. A special high speed serial I/O link is used so that racks can be distributed away from the processor, reducing the wiring costs for large plants.
A Human-Machine Interface (HMI) is employed for this purpose. HMI's
are also referred to as MMI's (Man Machine Interface) and GUI (Graphical User Interface).
A simple system may use buttons and lights to interact with the user. Text displays are available as well as graphical touch screens.
Most modern PLCs can communicate over a network to some other system, such as a computer running a SCADA (Supervisory Control And Data Acquisition) system or web browser.
PLCs used in larger I/O systems may have peer-to-peer (P2P) communication between processors. This allows separate parts of a complex process to have individual control while allowing the subsystems to co-ordinate over the communication link. These communication links are also often used for HMI (Human-Machine Interface) devices such as keypads or PC-type workstations. Some of today's PLCs can communicate over a wide range of media including RS-485, Coaxial, and even Ethernet for I/O control at network speeds up to 100 Mbit/s.
PICs are well-adapted to a range of tasks. These are typically industrial processes in manufacturing where the cost of developing and maintaining the automation system is high relative to the total cost of the automation, and where changes to the system would be expected during its operational life. PICs contain input and output devices compatible with industrial pilot devices and controls; little electrical design is required, and the design problem centers on expressing the desired sequence of operations in ladder logic (or function chart) notation. PIC applications are typically highly customized systems so the cost of a packaged PIC is low compared to the cost of a specific custom-built controller design. On the other hand, in the case of mass-produced goods, customized control systems are economic due to the lower cost of the components, which can be optimally chosen instead of a "generic" solution, and where the non-recurring engineering charges are spread over thousands or millions of units.
For high volume or very simple fixed automation tasks, different techniques are used. For example, a consumer dishwasher would be controlled by an electromechanical cam timer costing only a few dollars in production quantities.
A microcontroller-based design would be appropriate where hundreds or thousands of units will be produced and so the development cost (design of power supplies and input/output hardware) can be spread over many sales, and where the end-user would not need to alter the control. Automotive applications are an example; millions of units are built each year, and very few end-users alter the programming of these controllers. However, some specialty vehicles such as transit busses economically use PICs instead of custom-designed controls, because the volumes are low and the development cost would be uneconomic.
Very complex process control, such as used in the chemical industry, may require algorithms and performance beyond the capability of even high-performance PLCs. Very high-speed or precision controls may also require customized solutions; for example, aircraft flight controls.
PICs may include logic for single-variable feedback analog control loop, a "proportional, integral, derivative" or "PID controller." A PID loop could be used to control the temperature of a manufacturing process, for example. Historically PLCs were usually configured with only a few analog control loops; where processes required hundreds or thousands of loops, a distributed control system (DCS) would instead be used. However, as PLCs have become more powerful, the boundary between DCS and PLC applications has become less clear-cut.
PLCs have similar functionality as Remote Terminal Units. An RTU, however, usually does not support control algorithms or control loops. As hardware rapidly becomes more powerful and cheaper, PICs and DCS's are increasingly beginning to overlap in responsibilities, and many vendors sell RTUs with PIC-like features and vice versa. The industry has standardized on the IEC 61131-3 functional block language for creating programs to run on RTUs and PICs, although nearly all vendors also offer proprietary alternatives and associated development environments.
Analog signals are like volume controls, with a range of values between zero and full-scale. These are typically interpreted as integer values (counts) by the PLC, with various ranges of accuracy depending on the device and the number of bits available to store the data. As PLCs typically use 16-bit signed binary processors, the integer values are limited between -32,768 and +32,767. Pressure, temperature, flow, and weight are often represented by analog signals. Analog signals can use voltage or current with a magnitude proportional to the value of the process signal. For example, an analog 4-20 mA or 0 - 10 V input would be converted into an integer value of 0 - 32767.
Current inputs are less sensitive to electrical noise (i.e. from welders or electric motor starts) than voltage inputs.
Using only digital signals, the PLC has two digital inputs from float switches (Low Level and High Level). When the water level is above the switch it closes a contact and passes a signal to an input. The PLC uses a digital output to open and close the inlet valve into the tank.
When the water level drops enough so that the Low Level float switch is off (down), the PLC will open the valve to let more water in. Once the water level raises enough so that the High Level switch is on (up), the PLC will shut the inlet to stop the water from overflowing. This rung is an example of seal in logic. The output is sealed in until some condition breaks the circuit.
| | | Low Level High Level Fill Valve | |------[/]------|------[/]----------------------(OUT)---------| | | | | | | | | | | Fill Valve | | |------------| | | | | |
In this system, to avoid 'flutter' adjustments that can wear out the valve, many PLCs incorporate "hysteresis" which essentially creates a "deadband" of activity. A technician adjusts this deadband so the valve moves only for a significant change in rate. This will in turn minimize the motion of the valve, and reduce its wear.
A real system might combine both approaches, using float switches and simple valves to prevent spills, and a rate sensor and rate valve to optimize refill rates and prevent water hammer. Backup and maintenance methods can make a real system very complicated.
Under the IEC 61131-3 standard, PLCs can be programmed using standards-based programming languages. A graphical programming notation called Sequential Function Charts is available on certain programmable controllers.
Recently, the International standard IEC 61131-3 has become popular. IEC 61131-3 currently defines five programming languages for programmable control systems: FBD (Function block diagram), LD (Ladder diagram), ST (Structured text, similar to the Pascal programming language), IL (Instruction list, similar to assembly language) and SFC (Sequential function chart). These techniques emphasize logical organization of operations.
While the fundamental concepts of PLC programming are common to all manufacturers, differences in I/O addressing, memory organization and instruction sets mean that PLC programs are never perfectly interchangeable between different makers. Even within the same product line of a single manufacturer, different models may not be directly compatible.
Before the PLC, control, sequencing, and safety interlock logic for manufacturing automobiles was accomplished using hundreds or thousands of relays, cam timers, and drum sequencers and dedicated closed-loop controllers. The process for updating such facilities for the yearly model change-over was very time consuming and expensive, as the relay systems needed to be rewired by skilled electricians.
In 1968 GM Hydramatic (the automatic transmission division of General Motors) issued a request for proposal for an electronic replacement for hard-wired relay systems.
The winning proposal came from Bedford Associates of Bedford, Massachusetts. The first PLC, designated the 084 because it was Bedford Associates' eighty-fourth project, was the result. Bedford Associates started a new company dedicated to developing, manufacturing, selling, and servicing this new product: Modicon, which stood for MOdular DIgital CONtroller. One of the people who worked on that project was Dick Morley, who is considered to be the "father" of the PLC. The Modicon brand was sold in 1977 to Gould Electronics, and later acquired by German Company AEG and then by French Schneider Electric, the current owner.
One of the very first 084 models built is now on display at Modicon's headquarters in North Andover, Massachusetts. It was presented to Modicon by GM, when the unit was retired after nearly twenty years of uninterrupted service.
The automotive industry is still one of the largest users of PLCs, and Modicon still numbers some of its controller models such that they end with eighty-four.
Many of the earliest PLCs expressed all decision making logic in simple ladder logic which appeared similar to electrical schematic diagrams. The electricians were quite able to trace out circuit problems with schematic diagrams using ladder logic. This program notation was chosen to reduce training demands for the existing technicians. Other early PLCs used a form of instruction list programming, based on a stack-based logic solver.
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