The automation of many electromechanical processes, such as the movement of machinery on an assembly line, is done through the use of small computers called programmable logic controllers (PLCs). A PLC contains a programmable microprocessor that is programmed using a specialized computer language. Typically, the program for the automated process is written on a computer and then is downloaded onto the programmable logic controller directly through a cable connection. The program is stored in the programmable logic controller in non-volatile memory.
Inputs and Outputs
Programmable logic controllers typically contain a variable number of input/output (I/O) ports and usually employ reduced instruction set computing (RISC), which consists of simplified instructions that are intended to allow for faster execution. PLCs are designed for real-time use and often must withstand harsh factory environments, such as excessive vibration and high noise levels. The programmable logic controller circuitry monitors the status of multiple sensor inputs, which control output actuators such as motor starters, solenoids, lights, displays and valves.
This type of controller has made a significant contribution to factory automation. Earlier automation systems had to use thousands of individual relays, timers and sequencers, which had to be replaced or rewired whenever the automated process needed to change. In many cases, a programmable logic controller allows all of the relays and timers within a factory system to be replaced by a single controller. Modern PLCs deliver a wide range of functionality, including basic relay control, motion control, process control and complex networking. They also can be used in a distributed control system (DCS).
There are several types of interfaces that are used when people need to interact with programmable logic controllers to configure them or work with them. The interface might be configured with simple lights or switches, or it might include a text display. A more complex system might use an Internet-based interface on a computer running a supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) system.
PLCs were first created to serve the automobile industry. The first programmable logic controller project was developed in 1968 for General Motors to replace hard-wired relay systems with electronic controllers. PLCs have remained widely used in the early 21st century within manufacturing sectors such as the automobile industry.