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Programmable logic controller

A programmable logic controller (PLC) or programmable controller is a digital computer used for automation of industrial processes, such as control of machinery on factory assembly lines. Unlike general-purpose computers, the PLC is designed for multiple inputs and output arrangements, extended temperature ranges, immunity to electrical noise, and resistance to vibration and impact. Programs to control machine operation are typically stored in battery-backed or non-volatile memory. A PLC is an example of a real time system since output results must be produced in response to input conditions within a bounded time, otherwise unintended operation will result.
Control panel with PLC (grey elements in the center). The unit consists of separate elements, from left to right; power supply, controller, relay units for in- and output
Control panel with PLC (grey elements in the center). The unit consists of separate elements, from left to right; power supply, controller, relay units for in- and output

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.

PLCs were invented as replacements for automated systems that would use hundreds or thousands of relays, cam timers, and drum sequencers. Often, a single PLC can be programmed to replace thousands of relays. Programmable controllers were initially adopted by the automotive manufacturing industry, where software revision replaced the re-wiring of hard-wired control panels when production models changed.

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.

The functionality of the PLC has evolved over the years to include sequential relay control, motion control, process control, distributed control systems and networking. The data handling, storage, processing power and communication capabilities of some modern PLCs are approximately equivalent to desktop computers. PLC-like programming combined with remote I/O hardware, allow a general-purpose desktop computer to overlap some PLCs in certain applications.

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.

[edit] PLC compared with other control systems

PLCs are well-adapted to a range of automation 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. PLCs 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. PLC applications are typically highly customized systems so the cost of a packaged PLC 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 of places.

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 PLCs 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.

PLCs 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, RTUs, PLCs and DCSs are increasingly beginning to overlap in responsibilities, and many vendors sell RTUs with PLC-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 PLCs, although nearly all vendors also offer proprietary alternatives and associated development environments.
External links
* PLC Complete Tutorial
* Beginners PLC Primer
* Interview with Dick Morley (pdf)
* Linux PLC directory
* PLC Tutor
* Power Point on PLC Ladder Logic
* PLC books pdf
* The Learning Pit - PLC Tutor
* PLC Basics


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