Advice on how to apply controllers: Control Engineering research

Controllers should have easier to use software and be easier to program, according to Control Engineering subscribers providing advice for “How to apply controllers” research.

By Mark T. Hoske April 4, 2023
Courtesy: CFE Media and Technology


Learning Objectives

  • Understand Control Engineering research on how to apply controllers with write-in advice about what is and is not working with controllers.
  • Review implementation advice including controller system integration and programming.

Controller research insights

  • Control Engineering research on how to apply controllers included write-in advice about what was working and not working when applying industrial controllers.
  • Implementation advice includes controller system integration and programming.

Control Engineering subscriber research on “How to apply controllers,” conducted in January 2023, included asking for advice on what was working with industrial controllers, what was not working with controllers and advice when applying controllers. Of 134 responding to the survey, 79 shared write-in thoughts about what’s working with controllers, 65 what’s notworking, 60 offered advice and 54 offered to attribute their comments.

Subjectively grouping comments into four categories showed a main topic of concern was software and programming. In the “what is working” area, more respondents thought installation and reliability topics were working than not. Most implementation advice, about one-third, touched on environment and expertise.

Register here to download the survey.

Seven comments from each of three areas follow, lightly edited for style.

What’s working with controllers?

Advice topics about what is working with controllers can be categorized as follows.

  • 28% Purchase/support
  • 24% Installation/reliability
  • 31% Capabilities/operation
  • 15% Software/programming
  • 98% total, due to rounding.

Controllers have provided increased capability over time.

Communication is easier to other controllers from the same manufacturer than between different manufacturers, said David Brandt, construction electrical supervisor, Nucor Corp.

Most micro-controllers we use are sized appropriately for the tasks we throw at them, said Chris Schaefer, engineer, Ingersoll Rand.

Find programmable logic controllers (PLCs) with more advanced hardware and capabilities, such as expanded data logging and communications.

It’s easier when you stay within one manufacturer’s product line.

Our code standardization is working pretty well.

What’s not working with controllers?

Topics of advice regarding what is not working with controllers can be grouped as follows.

  • 28% Purchasing/support
  • 20% Installation/reliability
  • 32% Capabilities/operation
  • 20% Software/programming
  • 100%

Communications between new controllers and legacy equipment and PCs is challenging.

Set up and configuration is overly time consuming and prone to glitches.

Revision upgrades for software and hardware is a pain, Brandt said.

Upgrading firmware on the controller is a last step before requesting a replacement controller.

Some upgrade paths of obsolete equipment make it difficult to communicate between equipment, said Michael Mathews, electrical engineer, Freudenberg Performance Materials.

Programming software has too many “Mother may I…?” dialog boxes.

It’s difficult to create new programs for operations with our current staff.

Advice about applying controllers

Topics of advice about applying controllers can be categorized as follows.

  • 15% Features
  • 15% Interoperability/communications
  • 13% Upgrades
  • 7% Customer service
  • 33% Environment/expertise
  • 18% Programming
  • 100%

Make sure you have an understanding of the capability of the controller so configuration is easier.

Know your programming libraries and which ones will need to change to support the new controller, Schafer said.

Controllers are only as good as their sensors and actuators, and all should be matched to attain desired resolution.

Be aware of legacy devices that may not be currently supported by the controller, said Bilton Bryan, electrical engineer, Vanderweil Engineers.

It is never “that easy.” Pay attention to the details of the connections.

Implementing controllers can be a very difficult task. Sometimes different manufacturers use different communication protocols, and they’re not compatible, Mathews said.

Verify stock availability before committing to a schedule. Verify support time horizon to prevent premature obsolescence, said Scott Semanision, R&D Engineer 4, Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Methods for the 2023 Control Engineering “How to apply controllers” research

The research, conducted in January 2023 with subscribers who specify or purchase, integrate, use, maintain or upgrade controllers for industrial applications, has a margin of error at 95% confidence, of +/-8.5% to +/-8.8%, depending on response rate for various questions. Other areas of the research, covered more in the report include: Controller communications hardware and numbers of protocols needed, where controllers communicate, opinions on applying industrial controllers, cybersecurity, integration of software and hardware, upcoming purchases and if there are any vendor or controller-type restrictions.

Also see in the January/February edition, on page 7: “5 fast facts on exclusive Control Engineering research: How to apply controllers,” for data on leading controller types, areas of use, who is implementing controllers, application types and how controllers are being applied.

Think again about how to apply controllers in your next automation implementation.

Mark T. Hoske is Control Engineering content manager,


KEYWORDS: automation controllers, controllers research


Are you applying industrial controllers optimally?

Author Bio: Mark Hoske has been Control Engineering editor/content manager since 1994 and in a leadership role since 1999, covering all major areas: control systems, networking and information systems, control equipment and energy, and system integration, everything that comprises or facilitates the control loop. He has been writing about technology since 1987, writing professionally since 1982, and has a Bachelor of Science in Journalism degree from UW-Madison.