Before the advent of solid-state logic circuits, logical control systems were designed and built exclusively around electromechanical relays. Relays are far from obsolete in modern design, but have been replaced in many of their former roles as logic-level control devices, relegated most often to those applications demanding high current and/or high voltage switching.
Systems and processes requiring “on/off” control abound in modern commerce and industry, but such control systems are rarely built from either electromechanical relays or discrete logic gates. Instead, digital computers fill the need, which may be programmed to do a variety of logical functions.
Other engineering firms developed their own versions of this device, and it eventually came to be known in non-proprietary terms as a PLC, or Programmable Logic Controller. The purpose of a PLC was to directly replace electromechanical relays as logic elements, substituting instead a solid-state digital computer with a stored program, able to emulate the interconnection of many relays to perform certain logical tasks.
A PLC has many “input” terminals, through which it interprets “high” and “low” logical states from sensors and switches. It also has many output terminals, through which it outputs “high” and “low” signals to power lights, solenoids, contactors, small motors, and other devices lending themselves to on/off control. In an effort to make PLCs easy to program, their programming language was designed to resemble ladder logic diagrams. Thus, an industrial electrician or electrical engineer accustomed to reading ladder logic schematics would feel comfortable programming a PLC to perform the same control functions.
PLCs are industrial computers, and as such their input and output signals are typically 120 volts AC, just like the electromechanical control relays they were designed to replace. Although some PLCs have the ability to input and output low-level DC voltage signals of the magnitude used in logic gate circuits, this is the exception and not the rule.
Signal connection and programming standards vary somewhat between different models of PLC, but they are similar enough to allow a “generic” introduction to PLC programming here. The following illustration shows a simple PLC, as it might appear from a front view. Two screw terminals provide connection to 120 volts AC for powering the PLC’s internal circuitry, labeled L1 and L2. Six screw terminals on the left-hand side provide connection to input devices, each terminal representing a different input “channel” with its own “X” label. The lower-left screw terminal is a “Common” connection, which is generally connected to L2 (neutral) of the 120 VAC power source.
The true power and versatility of a PLC is revealed when we want to alter the behavior of a control system. Since the PLC is a programmable device, we can alter its behavior by changing the commands we give it, without having to reconfigure the electrical components connected to it. For example, suppose we wanted to make this switch-and-lamp circuit function in an inverted fashion: push the button to make the lamp turn off, and release it to make it turn on. The “hardware” solution would require that a normally-closed pushbutton switch be substituted for the normally-open switch currently in place.
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. 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 economical. This is 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.