Programmable logic controller (PLC) is a type of industrial computer that makes a decision to help guide or monitor a process, often for factory automation or machine control in discrete applications and sometimes in other control processes (continuous, batch or hybrid). A PLC often accepts inputs from sensors and sends instructions to actuators. PLCs have been defined by the number of inputs/outputs they can control and by processing speeds. PLC programming occurs with IEC 61131-3 programming languages and some can accept other programming. A programmable automation controller (PAC) is a type of industrial logic device based on a PC (personal computer) platform.
PLCs, PACs Articles
PLCs, PACs and edge controllers in an era of high availability
The emergence of new high availability technologies is making it more economical to implement a redundancy strategy for PLC, PAC and edge controllers.
High Availability Insights
- High availability (HA) is one modern way manufacturers can reach their efficiency goals. Traditionally, HA has been built into distributed control systems and used mainly in critical circumstances, however, utilizing HA for key functions more regularly has proven to be cost-effective and increase uptime. An increase in demand for HA functionality has been trending as a result.
- HA solutions have become a critical part of modern control strategies. It also removes the need for overtime on weekend and night shifts because production will no longer be affected during the daylight shift. Its main appeal is solutions that offer fast, deterministic and consistent failovers.
With manufacturers seeking new ways to maximize the efficiency and profitability of their operations, there is greater emphasis on control system technology that helps to ensure continuous production and greater plant availability. Traditionally, the replacement of a failed device may have been seen as a reasonable cause of downtime, but within modern manufacturing it is more often considered unacceptable. High availability technology and systems are now increasingly in demand, including industrial automation controllers, which can control a range of mission-critical devices and applications.
HA functionality has been built into distributed control systems (DCS) for many years, because large process plants depend on them for continuous operation, and any downtime tends to be costly. However, in applications controlled by programmable logic controllers (PLC) and programmable automation controllers (PAC) – such as machines and other equipment – HA functionality has typically only been used for the most critical instances.
One major reason for this is that the typical failure rates of PLC, PAC and edge controllers have been considered acceptable for traditional operational availability requirements. Also, building and maintaining redundant PLC or edge controller architectures has often been complex and costly. Consequently, many organizations have considered spare part back-up to be the most cost-effective means of mitigating a controller failure.
However, PLC, PAC and edge controllers are playing increasingly critical roles today, including key functions in the areas of data analysis and communications. Whereas a controller failure might once have taken a single machine offline, it now has the potential to significantly affect the uptime and efficiency of an entire plant or operation. As lights-out manufacturing processes become more common in industries, such as electronics manufacturing and logistics or warehousing, for example, the need for always-on control solutions is driving increased demand for HA control architectures.
With modern controller technology, it is now possible to implement HA in these automation systems quickly, easily and at a cost roughly equivalent to the traditional spare part model. This new HA approach enables organizations to increase plant uptime, mitigate risk and support more robust cybersecurity.
Modern PLC, PAC and edge controllers should have the ability to enable paired controllers to oversee systems by running in parallel, fully synchronized, with lock-step execution in real-time and access to the same input/output (I/O). The controller therefore ceases to be a single point of failure, because a fault in the primary controller results in a bumpless transfer to the secondary controller in milliseconds. This is accomplished through reflective memory technology, which completely transfers an image of the necessary memory from an active controller to its paired back-up controller with each individual scan.
A range of capabilities and conditions are incorporated in best-in-class HA control solutions to provide consistent, deterministic, reliable application control in cost-effective and maintainable solutions. To begin with, both controllers must have the same access to all I/O and field devices, and this is best achieved through a fault-tolerant Ethernet ring network. A ring network can often be created with minimal additional materials and effort when compared with traditional dual line or star networks.
Secondly, the controllers need to communicate with each other over high-performance links designed to support lock-step synchronization, scan for scan. This enables the back-up controller to always have the same dataset as the active controller. These links permit control failovers as fast as three milliseconds in a single PLC scan. The main benefit of these dedicated synchronization links, however, is that the failover time is deterministic and not variable due to the side-effects of other network devices or events. When other architectures try to synchronize the two controllers via the I/O networks, interactions with other networked devices can cause control switchover lag. In the worst instances, the non-deterministic failover of these other architectures could cascade into additional system failures or even a total halt of both redundant controllers.
Thirdly, while the two controllers can be installed in the same location, it is best to separate them geographically to avoid both being subject to common localized problems, such as power outages, fire or flood. The latest HA solutions use dedicated controller-to-controller links and support I/O networks over distances of up to 10km via fibre-optics.
Finally, the latest HA solutions are designed to continue seamless operations even with different software or firmware versions installed on the paired controllers. If the control software or firmware needs updating to deploy a new cybersecurity patch, the primary controller can be updated while the secondary controller runs and vice versa, meaning that the machine or process does not need to be shut down while this critical update takes place. This can lead to additional economic benefits. Users may be able to perform routine maintenance and even upgrade activities without having to stop the application. Activities that were once relegated to night and weekend shifts, resulting in costly overtime, can therefore now be performed during daylight shifts, without a loss of production.
Critical evolution of high availability
It is no longer necessary for organizations to sacrifice performance or costs in order to reap the many benefits of HA control architectures. Modern control system redundancy architectures provide cost-effective HA solutions with fast, deterministic and consistent failovers. Operational availability can now be maximized and maintenance costs minimized, leading to increased and quicker return on investment. With the additional benefit of improved cybersecurity resiliency, it is apparent that HA control architectures have become a critical evolution in modern control strategies.
– Edited by Morgan Green, associate editor, CFE Media and Technology, firstname.lastname@example.org.
PLCs, PACs FAQ
What is a PLC, and what is a PAC?
A programmable logic controller (PLC) is an industrial computer control system that monitors the state of input devices and makes decisions based on a custom program to control the state of output devices. PLCs are designed to handle multiple inputs and outputs and can be programmed to perform various control functions such as logic, sequencing, timing, counting and arithmetic. PLCs are used in a wide range of industrial applications, including manufacturing, process control and building automation.
A programmable automation controller (PAC) is a type of controller that combines the capabilities of a PLC and a PC (personal computer) in one unit. It usually has a more powerful processor and more memory than a standard PLC, as well as the ability to run a full-featured operating system. A PAC also has the capability to communicate with other devices via Ethernet and other communication protocols and can run visualization software and advanced algorithms. PACs are used in applications that may include motion control, machine vision and process control where a high-performance control system is required.
PLCs and PACs are programmable devices, but PLCs are typically used in industrial control systems, while PACs have more advanced capabilities and may include a wider range of applications.
What are the types of PLCs?
There are three main types of programmable logic controllers (PLCs): compact, modular and rack-based. Compact PLCs are small, standalone units that are typically used in smaller applications. Modular PLCs are more expandable and can be configured to fit the specific needs of a particular application. Rack-based PLCs are larger units that are typically used in industrial and manufacturing settings and can include multiple plug-in modules for input/output, communications and processing.
What are the 6 main components of a PLC?
The six main components of a programmable logic controller (PLC) are:
- Power supply: This component provides power to the logic device or processor of the PLC and other parts of the PLC.
- Central processing unit (CPU): This is the "brain" of the PLC, the processor where the program instructions are executed.
- Input/output (I/O) interfaces: These interfaces allow the PLC to communicate with the devices that it is controlling or receiving data from.
- Memory: This stores the program instructions and data used by the PLC.
- Programming device: This is used to create and edit the program that runs on the PLC.
- Network interface: This allows the PLC to communicate with other devices or systems on a network.
These six components are the basic building blocks of a PLC system. Additional components could be added, such as a human machine interface (HMI) or remote I/O.
Is a PAC better than a PLC?
That depends on the specific application and requirements. A programmable automation controller (PAC) combines the features of a programmable logic controller (PLC) and a personal computer into one, integrated unit. A PAC may provide greater processing power and connectivity options compared to a traditional PLC, but it also may be a higher cost and require a steeper learning curve for some programmers. The best choice between a PAC and a PLC depends on the specific needs and goals of the application.
Some FAQ content was compiled with the assistance of ChatGPT. Due to the limitations of AI tools, all content was edited and reviewed by our content team.