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A Low-Cost Programmable Logic Control (PLC) Trainer for Use in a University Agricultural Electricity Course

Submitted by: Aaron Dickinson, Graduate Student Donald M. Johnson, Professor Department of Agricultural & Extension Education 205 Agriculture Bldg. Fayetteville, AR 72701 e-mail: voice: 479-575-2035 FAX: 479-575-2610

Statement of Primary Audience: This article is primarily intended for college and university faculty teaching courses in agricultural electricity or control systems.

Abstract Programmable logic controllers (PLCs) are widely used in agricultural production and processing. Thus, agricultural systems management students should receive hands-on experience with these devices as part of their undergraduate education. However, in many cases, the cost of providing class-quantity PLCs for student laboratory use is prohibitive. This article describes a low-cost PLC trainer developed for use in a universitylevel agricultural electricity course. A sample laboratory activity used with the PLC trainer is also described. End-of-course student comments indicated that use of the trainer had stimulated student interest in learning more about programmable logic controllers. Introduction A programmable logic controller (PLC) is an industrial computer that receives inputs from switches and sensors, evaluates these inputs in accordance with programmed instructions, and controls output devices based on the results of this evaluation (Bern and Olsen, 2002). According to Gustafson and Morgan (2004), PLCs have replaced hard-wired relay-based control systems in most industries because of their compact size, ruggedness, and, most importantly, their ability to be reprogrammed (p. 277). Reprogramming a PLC allows changes to be made in the functional operation of a machine system without major physical changes in the control or output system components or wiring (Cox, 2001). Thus, labor, equipment, and downtime costs are reduced. The use of PLCs and similar devices in the agricultural industry is widespread and growing. Example applications include food processing (Rywotycki, 2003), building environmental control (Gates, Overhults, and Turner, 1992), grain drying (Cox, 1997), aquacultural production (Kolkovski, Curnow, and King, 2004), and tractor and machinery systems (Goering, Stone, Smith, and Turnquist, 2003). Schumacher, Ess, Strickland, and King (2002) determined that electricity and electronics was perceived by university coordinators as being the most important area of study for agricultural systems management students. Given the prevalence of PLCs in the agricultural industry, undergraduate agricultural systems management students should receive hands-on experience with these devices as a component of these electricity and electronics courses. Agricultural systems management professionals have written extensively concerning effective methods 2

for teaching electrical concepts and skills (Harner and Slocombe, 1989; Schumacher and Currence, 1989; Johnson, 2002). While specific approaches differ, all authors agree that effective instructional programs in electricity must provide students with active, hands-on learning experiences. These experiences are necessary for both concept and skill development (Johnson, 2002). The cost of commercially available PLC trainers (from $1600 to $5000 and more per unit) (AIT Training & Technology, Farmersburg, IN; TEC Trainers, Jordan, MN) makes it difficult for agricultural systems management programs to provide class quantity trainers for student laboratory study. Thus, a need existed to develop a low-cost PLC trainer that would allow programs with limited budgets to provide multiple units for student use. Purpose The purpose of this project was to develop a functional PLC trainer, suitable for use in a university agricultural electricity course, which was less expensive than commercially available PLC trainers. The following criteria were established to guide the development of the trainer: The trainer must cost less than $500 per unit to produce The trainer must be safe for students to use The trainer must allow for programming the PLC via computer The trainer must allow programming the PLC using relay ladder logic (RLL) The trainer must include typical PLC functions such as logic, counting, timing, latching, pulse, etc. The trainer must accept a minimum of four digital (on-off; high-low) PLC inputs The trainer must allow two or more outputs

Materials and Methods Development of the PLC trainer began with the selection of the PLC unit. After evaluating various manufacturers and models, the Allen-Bradley 1760-L12AWA-NC Pico Controller (Rockwell Automation, Milwaukee, WI) was selected. This PLC has eight analog inputs (120 or 240V AC) and four opto-isolated relay outputs (120 V AC), rated at 8 amperes resistive or 3 amperes inductive (Rockwell Automation, 2001). The 3

cost for the Pico Controller was $173. The Pico Controller can be programmed using the built-in touch pad and display, or via a serial port connected computer running PicoSoft (v. 3.0) software, available as a no-cost download. The cost for the serial programming cable was $72. PicoSoft is a relay ladder logic programming language with three display options (Device, DIN IEC, and ANSI CSA). The software incorporates two features that are especially helpful to students. First, the software allows the user to visually simulate operation of the program, allowing students to test and de-bug programs before downloading them to the device. Second, when the computer is connected to the PLC, the circuit diagram status display option enables the on-screen ladder diagram to mimic the operation of the PLC, showing the status of all rungs of the ladder diagram. In addition to the Pico Controller, several other items were required in order to construct the trainer (Table 1). These included a 120 V AC, 3-prong power cord; a SPST switch, box, and cover; 1- and 6-ampere cube fuses with DIN-rail mounted finger safe fuse holders; five power distribution blocks; three, 4-terminal and two, 8-terminal barrier strips; and one 8-terminal copper equipment grounding bar. These components were surface mounted on a piece of 24-in x 24-in x -in plywood and were wired with AWG 12 gauge THHN stranded conductors.

For safety, finger-safe components were used to minimize the potential for accidental contact with energized components. Also, electricity is supplied to the trainer through a GFCI-protected outlet. The total cost for the PLC trainer (Figure 1) was approximately $365.
Control Device(s)

Eq. Grd




L1 L2 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Inputs Outputs 2 3

Pico Controller


120 V AC

Terminal Blocks

Eq. Grd



Load Device(s)
Figure 1. Wiring diagram for PLC trainer.

As shown in Figure 2, input (control) devices (such as pushbutton switches, thermostats, limit switches, proximity sensors, etc.) are wired between the barrier strip connected to the 1-ampere fused ungrounded terminal block and the barrier strip connected to the input terminals of the Pico Controller. The input device is addressed based on the number of the Pico Controller input terminal to which it is connected. For example, when developing the relay ladder logic program, a thermostat connected to input terminal one would be addressed as I1. An equipment grounding conductor connects the equipment grounding bar and the control devices equipment grounding screw.

Figure 2. Programmable logic control trainer.

Output (load) devices are simulated with 120 V AC lamps. The ungrounded conductor from the lamp fixture connects to one terminal of the barrier strip connected to the Pico Controllers output terminals, and takes its address from the terminal number. For example, an output device connected to output terminal 2 would be addressed as Q2. The grounded conductor and equipment grounding conductor for each output connects to the appropriate load barrier strip. Example Lab Activity The PLC trainer allows students to connect devices and write relay ladder logic programs to solve a variety of process control problems. An example problem requires students to control an auger and feed grinder system. A normally-open (NO), momentary-contact pushbutton is to start both the feed grinder (immediately) and then the auger (after a 30- second delay), allowing the grinder to reach full speed before the auger delivers grain. A normally-closed (NC), momentary contact pushbutton is to stop the auger (immediately) and the grinder (after a 30-second delay). Each student group is provided with a pushbutton start-stop station (contains NO and NC pushbuttons in single device), and two 120 V AC lamp fixtures to simulate the auger and grinder motors. The students must correctly connect the devices to the PLC trainer and write a relay ladder logic program (Figure 3) to cause the loads to operate as specified.

Figure 3. PicoSoft screenshot showing simulation of grinder and auger control circuit. (Note: The auger has been stopped and the grinder is in the 30-second off delay period).

Summary and Conclusions The objective of this project was to develop a low-cost PLC trainer that could be successfully integrated into a university agricultural electricity course. Seven specific criteria were established to guide development of the trainer. As developed, the PLC trainer met all of these criteria. The total cost was approximately $365 per trainer. One prototype trainer was built and successfully incorporated into a university agricultural electricity course in fall 2004. Student reactions were quite positive. On written course evaluations, several students indicated that the PLC labs were among the most interesting and useful labs in the entire course. Students expressed a desire to, learn more about programmable controllers, and to spend more time on PLCs. Based on the success of the trainer, four additional trainers have been constructed for use in the course. References Bern, C.J., & Olson, D.I. (2002). Electricity for agricultural applications. Ames: Iowa State Press. Cox, R.A. (2001). Technicians guide to programmable controllers, 4th edition. Albany, NY: Delmar. Cox, S.W.R. (1997). Measurement and control in agriculture. London: Blackwell Science Ltd. Gates, R.S., Overhults, D.G., & Turner, L.W. (1992). Mechanical backup systems for electronic environmental 7

controllers. Applied Engineering in Agriculture, 8, 491-497. Goering, C.E., Stone, M.L., Smith, D.W., & Turnquist, P.K. (2003). Off-road vehicle engineering principles. St. Joseph, MI: American Society of Agricultural Engineers. Gustafson, R.J., & Morgan, M.T. (2004). Fundamentals of electricity for agriculture. St. Joseph, MI: American Society of Agricultural Engineers. Harner, J.P., & Slocombe, J.W. (1989). Instructional approach for resistive circuitry. Journal of Agricultural Mechanization, 4(2), 18-22. Johnson, D.M. (2002). Dynamometer and instrumentation for determining electric motor power, efficiency, and power factor. Journal of Agricultural Systems, Technology, and Management, 16. Retrieved December 17, 2004 from Kolkovski, S. Curnow, J, & King, J. (2004). Intensive rearing system for fish larvae research. Aquacultural Engineering, 31, 295-308. Rockwell Automation. (2001). Pico Controllers users manual, Bulletin 1760. Milwaukee, WI: Author. Rywotycki, R. (2003). Food frying process control system. Journal of Food Engineering, 59, 339-342. Schumacher, L.G., & Currence, H.D. (1989). A useful workshop model provides university faculty for much needed instruction on electricity in agriculture. NACTA Journal, 33(2), 74-77. Schumacher, L.G., Ess, D.R., Strickland, R.M., & King, B.O. (2002). Agricultural systems management in the new millennium. Journal of Agricultural systems, Technology, and Management, 15. Retrieved December 17, 2004 from