PLC DCS SCADA & HMI for Dummies

PLC DCS SCADA and HMI for Beginners

Let's see how simple we can make it - by first building a SCADA system - and then by building a DCS system - each from the ground up.

Suppose that we're building a brand new factory - and suppose that our first piece of equipment is something like a big industrial oven. This thing will be made up of heaters, and valves, and conveyor motors, and other assorted machinery - so let's say we get to work and we build us an oven. Now that we've got the mechanical part of the oven built - we need some type of controller for it - something to accurately control all of those different parts in order to turn raw material into a sellable final product. So what type of control are we going to use? How about a PLC - a Programmable Logic Controller?
In very simple language a PLC is a type of computer. But the computers that most people are familiar with use a keyboard as an input device and a screen for an output device. PLC's don't have a keyboard. So for an input device, we use an "input module" which is basically a little box with a row of screws on the front of it. We wire up a bunch of pushbuttons, sensors, switches, etc. to the little screws ... and this will serve as the input device for our PLC "computer". We do something similar for an output device. Instead of using a screen for an output device, we use an "output module" which is basically another little box with a row of screws on the front of it. We wire up a bunch of solenoid valves, indicator lamps, motor starters, etc. to the little screws ... and this will serve as the output device for our PLC "computer".

So for this first example, let's say that we decide to go with a PLC system. We buy the PLC and install it by connecting wires between the oven and the PLC. Then we buy a copy of the programming software from the PLC manufacturer - and then we write a program for the PLC - we'll probably use "ladder logic" programming, since that's what most PLC's use as their native language. And now the PLC is just about ready to properly control the system - except that we still need some way for the operator to set and to monitor the temperatures - and to start and stop the conveyors and so forth.

Now for this small system, some meters and pushbuttons and some thumbwheel switches might do just fine. We could wire those up and build us an operator's control panel for our oven. But another (better?) way would be to use an HMI - a Human Machine Interface. (This used to be called an MMI - Man Machine Interface - but now-a-days we've got to be more politically correct.) So we buy us a nice desktop computer and some type of HMI software. We'll need to program the HMI - and usually this is done by dragging and dropping pictures of meters and knobs and buttons onto our computer screen. In other words, we build a "virtual" control panel for our operator to use. We link these on-screen controls to the PLC's memory through a communication cable. And now we're finally ready to go. Great so far - and we start making some money with our factory.

Later on, business is good and we decide that our factory could use two additional ovens. So we get the mechanical parts built - and now we need to decide how we're going to control these new ovens. Now the original PLC that we used for oven number one is quite capable of controlling the two additional ovens. We just might need to add a few additional I/O modules to the chassis - and we'll certainly need to run some more wires - but basically the same old PLC "brain" has plenty of extra horsepower to handle the new ovens. But - here's an idea: Suppose that we buy two new PLC's - one for each new oven. Now that's certainly going to cost us more money, but at least this way each oven could operate - or be shut down - completely separately from the other two systems. That's going to make scheduling maintenance a lot simpler - and generally give us a lot more flexibility in all of our operations. Plus - by having three controllers - we're not putting "all of our eggs in one basket" as the old saying goes.
We talk the boss into it - and we buy the new PLC's and install them - and download copies of the original program into them - and we're just about ready to go. But how about that operator control piece of the puzzle? Since we're already using an HMI for our operator's control panel, all we have to do is make two copies of the screens from our original oven - and set these new copies up on the operator's HMI computer. Finally, we extend the communication cable from the HMI station over to the two new PLC's - and now we're up and running.

Next the boss hires a bean-counter - someone whose job involves maximizing our factory's profits. Now this person requires data - he needs to know how much it costs to operate the ovens - and how much product we run through them - and how much of that product is "off-spec" and wasted. The best way to get all of this production data is to ask the PLC's - after all, they're the "brains" that are controlling the system. So let's upgrade the old HMI that the operator has been using - to something with more features. This will be called a SCADA system - for "Supervisory Control And Data Acquisition". It will still have control screens with all of the virtual buttons and meters and other whatnots that the operator needs to control the ovens - but it will also have some additional features beyond the HMI - features which will allow the SCADA system to suck the production data right out of the PLC's - and to store that data in some type of computer database. Later, the bean-counter can retrieve that production data and analyze it to his little heart's content. All is well.

Quick review so far: The machinery in our factory is being controlled by PLC's. For a little while we used an HMI (Human/Machine Interface) software package - so that the Human operator could Interface (that is, monitor and operate) the Machine. Later we moved from the HMI up to a more powerful software package - a SCADA (Supervisory Control And Data Acquisition) system. This new software still allowed our human operator to Supervise and Control the system - and it also added some features for Data Acquisition for the bean-counter's benefit.

Now let's start over with a new factory - and this time we'll use a DCS (Distributed Control System).

Suppose that this time we know in advance that the factory we're about to build is going to involve a rather sophisticated process - one which is going to require many interrelated steps - all of which must be carefully coordinated in order to produce a sellable final product. We're talking about chemicals - or pharmaceuticals - or something along those lines. (The term "continuous process" is a familiar buzzword for something like this.)

Now yes, we COULD use PLC's for this type of factory - and yes, we COULD use a SCADA system to supervise and control the whole thing. But - many engineers would decide to go with a DCS for something like this. And that's what we're going to do.

Now suppose that our new factory still needs something along the lines of our previous ovens - how would we control these? Instead of putting a PLC on each oven - we'll use a separate DCS "controller" for each oven. Now at first glance, these controllers will each look a lot like an individual "I/O module" or "I/O card" in a PLC system. They usually slide right into a chassis - and have wires for inputs and outputs connected to the front of them. So most DCS systems tend to look a lot like a PLC system. The big difference is that each of these DCS "controller/card" devices will be individually programmed. That's where the term "DISTRIBUTED" comes from - the control (or "brain-power" if you prefer) is DISTRIBUTED among many individual controllers. Specifically, in a typical PLC system we generally have only one "brain" (or processor) in each chassis - and then several I/O (input/output) modules in the chassis to handle the signal wires to-and-from the machinery. On the other hand, in a typical DCS system we'll have several "brains" (or controllers) in a chassis - and the I/O wiring associated with each particular "brain's" machinery will be connected directly to the front of that individual controller.

Now what about the operator control function? Well, one integral part of a DCS system is a large computer (usually a quite powerful one) which looks a lot like a SCADA terminal. And it does exactly the same job. First, it gives the operator a series of control screens with all of the virtual buttons and meters and other whatnots that he (or she) requires in order to control the machinery. Second, it also has the features required to suck the production data right out of the individual controllers - and to store that data in some type of computer database. And in most DCS systems, there is a third function of the DCS terminal: The programming software for the individual controllers is also usually available on this terminal - so that reprogramming the controllers is possible right over the existing data communication cables.

Quick review of the DCS approach: The machinery in our factory is being controlled by many individual little controllers. Our operator uses a DCS terminal (computer) to monitor and operate the machinery. This DCS terminal also has features to acquire production data and store it in a database for later analysis. Additionally, the DCS terminal usually has the programming software required for the individual controllers available. And all of the hardware and all of the software required for our DCS system is generally provided by just one manufacturer. Some people think that's a good thing - and other people think that's a bad thing.

So which is the better approach - PLC or DCS? This is usually decided by the engineers who initially design the factory. And in practice, there are a lot of factories out there who use combinations of the two approaches.
Finally: Please remember that this was intended to be a general "beginner level" discussion - there are exceptions to all of these "rules" ... but hopefully this will give you a "starting point" from which to build.
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