programmable logic controller (PLC) or programmable controller is an industrial digital computer which has been ruggedized and adapted for the control of manufacturing processes, such as assembly lines, or robotic devices, or any activity that requires high reliability, ease of programming and process fault diagnosis.

PLCs can range from small modular devices with tens of inputs and outputs (I/O), in a housing integral with the processor, to large rack-mounted modular devices with a count of thousands of I/O, and which are often networked to other PLC and SCADA systems.

They can be designed for many arrangements of digital and analog I/O, extended temperature ranges, immunity to electrical noise, and resistance to vibration and impact. Programs to control machine operation are typically stored in battery-backed-up or non-volatile memory.

PLCs were first developed in the automobile manufacturing industry to provide flexible, rugged and easily programmable controllers to replace hard-wired relay logic systems. Since then, they have been widely adopted as high-reliability automation controllers suitable for harsh environments.

A PLC is an example of a “hard” real-time system since output results must be produced in response to input conditions within a limited time, otherwise unintended operation will result.

PLC originated in the late 1960s in the automotive industry in the US and were designed to replace relay logic systems.[1] Before, control logic for manufacturing was mainly composed of relayscam timersdrum sequencers, and dedicated closed-loop controllers.[citation needed]

The hard-wired nature made it difficult for design engineers to alter the process. Changes would require rewiring and careful updating of the documentation. If even one wire were out of place, or one relay failed, the whole system would become faulty. Often technicians would spend hours troubleshooting by examining the schematics and comparing them to existing wiring (not in plc/programmable logic controller).[2] When general-purpose computers became available, they were soon applied to control logic in industrial processes. These early computers were unreliable[3] and required specialist programmers and strict control of working conditions, such as temperature, cleanliness, and power quality.[4]

The programmable logic controller was developed with several advantages over earlier designs. It tolerated the industrial environment better than computers and was more reliable, compact and required less maintenance than relay systems. It was easily extensible with additional I/O modules, while relay systems required complicated hardware changes in case of reconfiguration. This allowed for easier iteration over manufacturing process design. Comparing to a computer, PLC in a rack format can be more easily extended with additional I/O in the form of I/O cards. It also permitted for its operation to be monitored. Early PLCs were programmed in ladder logic, which strongly resembled a schematic diagram of relay logic. This program notation was chosen to reduce training demands for the existing technicians. Other PLCs used a form of instruction list programming, based on a stack-based logic solver.

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