Dick Morley remembered as ‘Father of the PLC’

Electrical engineer best known for his work on the programmable logic controller (PLC) dies at 84.

By Chris Vavra October 20, 2017

Richard “Dick” Morley, an electrical engineer named the “father” of the programmable logic controller (PLC) passed away on Oct. 17 in New Hampshire at the age of 84. Morley was the founder and president of Bedford Associates, where he created Modicon, the first PLC, in 1968.

In 2008, Control Engineering covered Morley’s contributions to the PLC and to automation as a whole in an article designed to honor the 40th anniversary of the technology. The article talked about how applying industrial computers in the 1960’s were a major challenge for most companies and that it was out of reach for many companies. Most plant managers didn’t want to deal with it and anyone installing control and monitoring capabilities into their programmable controllers avoided the use of the word computer when pitching their product to customers. Modicon was no different.

The project came about because they were frustrated at spending several months getting a minicomputer installation running properly at a client site. It was especially frustrating because the projects Bedford did were similar. Morley considered the idea of building a computer-like control unit that could replace minicomputers for machine tool control and parts handling. On January 1, 1968, composed a 12-page document that would become the earliest documentation for PLC development.

Morley, who was also a contributor to Control Engineering and Plant Engineering, wrote about the creative process in a 2008 article:

“The hardware had to have no fans with all conductive cooling, sealed, spark immunity. And each of the circuit boards (there were three at the time) would view the world thermally through a copper sheet. Between each printed circuit board, there was a copper sheet that conducted the heat to the outside world.

“The hardware had to look good to manufacturing, be power- and voltage-insensitive, rugged and high priced. I knew then cost was a bad word. We believed our user would want total value, not entry costs. If the programmable controller saved one month of factory up-time, it was worth a million dollars.

“The software was designed for the problem, to be implemented by the electrician and resulted in an adversary relationship with academics. The academics wanted to build microsecond performance while forgetting about quantum theory. The quantum effects of a factory are rather simple. There was a pulse of power every 8 milliseconds in the U.S. Nothing can occur any faster than that other than very special processes. Again, the 80/20 rule applies: 20% of the effort will solve 80% of the problems.”

At the time, though, even Morley did not expect what kind of impact it would have. Like many, he wanted to create a product that would make his job easier.

“At that time, we did not know what we had built. We just wanted to get rid of a problem that had plagued me for four years in specialized systems. What it did for the customer was reduce the time to market from months to weeks on a Greenfield project, and maintenance was really low-it runs forever.”

Condolences for Morley came from many in the manufacturing and automation industry for his contributions to the industry. “In ushering in the era of modern automation, he served as a longtime mentor and friend to many of our leaders and to countless other professionals within the process automation and manufacturing industry, unfailingly offering thought-provoking and challenging advice to those who needed it,” Schneider Electric said in a statement.

Sam Hoff, CEO of Patti Engineering, said in a statement: “Dick was an optimist, innovator, and a visionary. Every time I met Dick it was a memorable experience and he gave me several nuggets to use in both business and life. He and his wife Shirley were very giving as they took in many, many foster kids over the years. He is now reunited with the love of his life. In conclusion, the best thing to say about Dick is ‘Life Well Lived.'”

In later years, he created R. Morley Associates (RMI), also known as “The Barn,” which was a consulting firm specializing in manufacturing and process controls. In the early 2000s, Morley created a web-based control at his website, www.barn.org, to actuate a backhoe. For safety reasons, most times, it was connected to a virtual backhoe.

According to his website, Morley was the recipient of the Franklin Institute’s prestigious Howard N. Potts Award and an inductee of the Automation Hall of Fame. He was also chairman of the board of the National Center of Manufacturing Sciences (NCMS), director at large for the Society Manufacturing Engineers (SME) and a member of the manufacturing advisory board for Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI).

A fund has been set up to provide a memorial and a scholarship in his honor. More information can be found on the GoFundMe page here.

Chris Vavra, production editor, Control Engineering, CFE Media, cvavra@cfemedia.com.

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Author Bio: Chris Vavra is senior editor for WTWH Media LLC.