Five Things Your PLC Can’t, But Should, Do

What do small-batch brewing operations, package flow in an Amazon warehouse, and roller coasters all have in common?

As different as all of these things are, when looking behind the curtain at what controls the mechanics, it’s all the same; the sturdy and reliable Programmable Logic Controller (PLC).

A Programmable Logic Controller (PLC) is a computing device, similar to a PC or smartphone that the industrial automation industry uses to monitor and control the operation of machines and equipment. The PLC monitors inputs, and an internal computer makes decisions using logic to send commands to outputs that, in turn, control the machinery.

All PLCs are programmable and range in complexity. PLCs can be monitored by other computer applications like supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) or cloud-based apps. Recent advances in PLCs allow for much higher connectivity and integration with a centralized management system.

In the age of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and Industry 4.0 utilizing big data, the desire to harness the power of PLCs data collection and capitalize on their capabilities is higher than ever. With the increased interest in PLC data collection, limitations on what the reliable PLC can and can’t do are becoming more noticeable.

Leverage Open Source Support

Most PLCs are restrictive, proprietary systems that were not designed to support an open-source. As a result, companies have to rely on manufacturers for support, patching, and other technical assistance. Ultimately, this is less flexible, more prohibitive, and costlier than open-source alternatives.

Phoenix Contact’s PLCnext offers an open Linux environment for edge computing with access to more data through IoT systems and more flexibility with open source code. By leveraging communities like GitHubPLCnext community, or the various Linux networks, organizations stand to make substantial gains in customizing code to specific applications.

Interface with Databases

Connecting assets to the Cloud is quickly becoming one of the best ways to communicate to databases. If a PLC can’t connect to the Cloud, or an internet-connected gateway, this could become a concern for a business. The unique combination of cost savings and high-powered analytics that the Cloud offers, implementing strategies for gathering and transferring data, is critical.

By updating to a PLC that can run JavaScript, like Phoenix Contact’s PLCnext, integrating the capability to connect to the Cloud is simple. PLCnext is not only a control platform but also a gateway. A gateway to the future of data in the Cloud. PLCnext can be used alone or in conjunction with an existing control system to collect data from a network or via I/O and push it to the Cloud.

High-Level Scripted Languages

With PLCnext Technology, organizations can harness the power of a Linux-based PLC in their transition towards Industry 4.0. PLCnext allows engineers to write applications using both IEC 61131–3 languages and IT languages like JavaScript, Python, and C++, all while leveraging the resources of an open-source community.

To this day, Ladder Diagram (LD), which is modeled on that relay-logic, has remained the most prominent logical control for PLCs. Instead of using code, LD uses graphical representations. In its IEC 61131–3 standard, the IEC, an organization that creates international standards for PLCs, outlines five acceptable languages for PLCs. Even the most high-level of these, Structured Text (ST), doesn’t have the same capabilities of PC languages like Python or C++. Without access to these diverse languages, PLCs are crippled when it comes to what they can and cannot do.

Keep this in mind for the rest of the list–it’s at the core of these issues. While engineers have found ways to overcome these hurdles, they generally involve integrating a PLC into a PC-based system to harness the powers of languages that are inaccessible to the PLC.

Built-in Cybersecurity

Control systems are indispensable for many industrial processes and are lucrative targets for intruders, criminal groups, foreign intelligence, phishers, spammers, hacktivists, or terrorists. Cyber-incidents affecting these control systems can have disastrous effects, not only on your operations but also on a country’s economy and people’s lives. Cyber-intrusions can cause power outages, paralyze transport systems, and trigger ecological catastrophes. The implications of cybersecurity and the need for a comprehensive security strategy is now acknowledged by more sectors and is now very much part of standard operational risk management.

Most PLCs do not have cybersecurity features built-in. Some PLC manufacturers do have add-ons that help with the threats of cybersecurity. For example, Schneider Electric’s Modicon M580 PAC controller is cyber-security certified (Achilles Level 2) with IPsec communications protocol, easy to configure Cybersecurity features and strict supervision of firmware and software integrity.

Secure Cloud Connection

The Cloud is entirely web-based and can be accessed through a computer or mobile device. A user can add and access all connected devices to set up a secure connection from anywhere by using an encrypted connection to the Cloud and a secure VPN connection to the PLC, HMI, and OIT. The Cloud can collect historical data from all the connected devices, which can be used to make more efficient process decisions based on visual and real-time information. This process on most PLC would usually need a third-party device to help make the secure connection from the Cloud to the PLC. If a PLC was running JavaScript, engineers could easily program them to send data to the Cloud securely.

With the power of the next-generation PLCs from Phoenix Contact and Schneider Electric, your reliable PLC can work harder for you. Upgrade your PLC to include built-in cybersecurity, connectivity to multiple devices or the Cloud, and the processing power needed to handle big data analysis. This PLC combination can take your application to the next level.

Barr-Thorp Electric Company can provide a solution for your PLC needs by creating a customized application using next-generation PLC’s. To learn more, contact Barr-Thorp at 800-473-9123.

For more information on PLC’s and unique applications, check out these articles: