So… What Do You Do?


Hello from mushy Sacramento, CA. Flying in this afternoon the whole area looked like a big sponge, everything looked flooded out, and its still raining. And I thought there was a severe drought here…


Most people have heard this question before… “What do you do?” Usually the person asking is wanting to know your job title or occupation.

If you are a trucker or a chef the answer might be fairly simple, but in technical fields the answer can be more complex. People are familiar with food and 18 wheelers, but if you say you’re a controls engineer, PLC programmer or panel builder people may look at you with a blank stare. My wife has built industrial control panels for about 20 years now, and it can be pretty complicated to explain her job to her woman friends who have never been in a factory.

When I was building custom machinery and doing a lot of PLC programming I often had the same problem, even with guys. There are a lot of buzzwords and acronyms involved in the explanation, it can be pretty confusing for people not familiar with industry.

If you are involved in any entrepreneurial activity, you are probably familiar with the idea of an “elevator pitch”. The premise is that you meet some person you need to impress in an elevator and only have 30 seconds or so to let them know your big idea, or why they might want to hire you. Conventional wisdom is that its a bad idea to just state your job title or recite your resume. Instead, some people advise describing what you do in terms of the problems you can solve for that person. Maybe describing the services you offer or listing some of your credentials would be part of that also. You might even follow up with how you got where you are.

One suggestion I recently read advises that you condense your idea or description of what you do even more. Twitter only allows messages of 140 characters or less; this can be quite challenging. In “Talk like TED” by Carmine Gallo, he suggests condensing what you do into a “Twitter Friendly” headline. He says that this can be an excellent exercise even if you aren’t pitching an idea or looking for a job. It tends to provide clarity to your thoughts.

I took this advice and decided to try and define my “mission statement” or what I do into a Twitter friendly phrase. What I came up with is the following:

“Helping People Understand All Aspects of Automation”

This came out to a very condensed 51 characters. I then elaborated on each concept to ensure this is really what I meant and came up with the following:

Helping: No one can “make” someone learn. The person needs to have the desire, all I can really do is help.

People: Male or female, all races, backgrounds and beliefs, all educational levels. Yup, this is pretty much what I meant.

Understand: This means not only learning how to repeat or memorize, but to truly be able to draw ones own conclusions and create original thoughts.

All: This is very broad. Obviously I can’t include everything, but it does imply needing to think outside of the confines of the technology.

Aspects: May include societal impacts, psychology, education, financial concerns, required knowledgebase, safety and employment.

Automation: Includes Industrial (machines and processes), robotics, sensing, circuits/components/microprocessors, home automation, building automation (commercial and industrial  facilities), mechanical, electrical, pneumatic & hydraulic, software, IOT (Internet Of Things), communications and computers.

Right now I spend a lot of my time teaching for Automation Training in a fairly narrow part of this field, primarily PLCs, HMIs and SCADA. But the book I wrote several years ago covered a lot of subjects (though very shallowly); I still find myself visiting a lot of these concepts when teaching. I get people from manufacturing, process control, teachers in universities, laboratory types and students right out of school. Some people want to learn to program, and others want to concentrate on troubleshooting and maintenance. Long term, I think this statement really does reflect what I hope to accomplish.

This was a pretty effective exercise for me, plus it made the time flying today go by pretty quickly. I would encourage anyone to try it out, you might find it challenging to condense what you do even more than an elevator pitch does.

So… What do you Do?

Posted in Business, Sales and Marketing, Training Tagged with: , , , , ,

The Dangers of Not Using Local Vendors


In these days of online access to any product you can think of, it seems like your best option for buying technical products is to just find the best price and play vendors off against each other. I get offers from China often; buy cheap! We sell Allen-Bradley, Siemens, machine tool parts, tooling, whatever!

I must admit I do my share of buying from eBay and PLCCenter. Both are good for used parts, and every once in a while you will find a good vendor that happens to be located somewhere else, but here are 5 good reasons to establish a relationship with your local representative or vendor:

1. Technical Support. Some companies don’t realize that your vendor may be required by the manufacturer to hire specialist engineers with expertise in such areas as PLCs, Drive Systems and Motion Control. Allen-Bradley is a good example of this; their vendors operate within “APRs”, or Areas of Primary Responsibility. They are not supposed to operate outside of their defined area, and must support products sold by their company, for free. This is at a pretty high expense to the vendor. Its been more than 20 years since I worked for the Allen-Bradley vendor in East Tennessee, and the two engineer specialists that I worked with back then are still there. They were pretty experienced guys back then, you can only imagine what they have learned by now.

2. Education. A lot of vendors do “Lunch and Learns” on their products for their customers. Representatives from the manufacturers bring their latest products and let you check them out and answer any questions you may have. Plus you get a free lunch out of it, can’t beat that! They also often have training rooms at their facility where they do training courses.

3. Stocking Programs. In these days of JIT (Just In Time) manufacturing, some manufacturers need to ensure that there is always enough of whatever component they need on the shelf. Companies often coordinate their production schedules with vendors to ensure that components are never more than an hour away, also reducing their own storage requirements. While at Wright Industries, we had a program where pneumatic fittings and electrical accessory bins were refilled weekly. When I owned ACS, we ensured that our local cable supplier always stocked the special cable types we needed.

4. Shipping Costs/Time. This one is easy; of course it takes more time to ship products from places that aren’t local, especially from overseas. But its not as obvious that the shipping costs are already built into the pricing from your local vendor. When buying from outside area, there is not only the shipping cost from the manufacturer to the vendor, but also from the vendor to you. Some local vendors run a truck around the area and deliver their products for no additional charge.

5. A Friendly Face. Sales people perform a valuable service in terms of offering advice and education on the product itself, but when I had my own machine building company I also relied on their news about what local companies (potential customers) or even my competition was up to. I also appreciated the occasional lunch or trinkets (hats, screwdrivers, etc.) 🙂

One of the things that prompted this post is a particular customer I have that has burnt a lot of bridges with local vendors. He has had a lot of local reps come in and quote product solutions including providing design advice, then shopped the orders around the country online, sometimes even buying used equipment. Of course the locals follow up hoping to get an order, but after this has happened a few times the vendors understandably stop providing quotes. When components break down he doesn’t have the local connections to get quick replacements or repairs.

Some of this is due to a lack of knowledge about how distributors work, and some of it is due to wanting to pinch the penny until it yells, but the end result is undoubtedly higher costs and less support.

Plus, he always has to buy his own lunch!

Posted in Business, Vendors and Manufacturers Tagged with: , ,

Happy New Year 2017!


Well, its that time again where people around the world review the last year and make plans for the new one to come. While this can be done at any time of year, people often choose this particular day to reflect on what changes they want to make in their lives.

Way back in 2011 I mentioned that I often use Chris Guillebeau’s technique of an annual review followed by defining my goals for the upcoming year. I think people are constantly evaluating the past, but the new year is a particular time where they set goals connected to their previous results. Some go as far as making “New Year’s Resolutions”, though this formality can often lead to disappointment when one’s goals aren’t met. Its a well known fact that more gym memberships are sold in January than any other month.

Looking back on my last year, I did make some fairly serious changes. I moved my office from a single room in a shared space 25 miles away in Nashville to a much larger location only a mile and a half from my house. At the time I thought I was just doing it for convenience, but it has turned into much more than that.

I started creating a series of my own classes on PLCs, troubleshooting, Machine Vision and other automation topics. In support of this I was able to write and publish a new book in only four months.

I have started creating an “Automation Academy” that will eventually have at least one of every major PLC brand along with hands on stations for troubleshooting, board level work and a small machine vision lab. I hope to add a small robot at some point in the future. I have also added class space for up to eight students, and will be teaching my first Automation Training class (on Siemens S7) here January 17-20. This will be a great test of my logistics!

Last year at this time none of this was really even on my radar. I knew that I enjoyed teaching, and my overall plan was mostly focused on just doing classes for AT. I spent 38 of 52 weeks on the road last year. Though not all of them were for AT, I realized that for my own health I needed to figure out a way to spend more time at home where I tend to eat better and exercise more. Much of my goal setting for next year has been a direct result of that.

One of the benefits of having a blog like this is that when you write down your goals for all to see it makes you more accountable. Some of my friends (and even my mom!) occasionally read it and know if I’m slacking off. So here are some of my goals for the upcoming year:

1. Do not schedule consecutive weeks teaching classes out of town. I have already had to modify my original goal of being home every other week because I still have other customers besides AT, and one of them has requested some time at the end of January. I also sometimes get asked to do longer trips, such as my class several months ago in Trinidad.

2. Eat better. I haven’t mentioned this here before, but I have had a health problem (Diverticulitis) for the past four years. This has led to one trip to the hospital and several other miserable weeks getting over attacks. While doctors have given me some broad guidelines on how I should eat, its not always possible to stay strictly between the lines. I have already been pretty good about eating much less meat and almost no fast food, but I know I can do better.

3. Exercise more. This goes hand in hand with being on the road less. There is a nice gym right up the hill from my house, and when I am home I tend to use it pretty regularly.

4. Continue building on my training programs. It is difficult to put completion dates to some of my projects, since I am new to the course design process. I had hoped to have my first PLC class online by the beginning of the year since I had most of December at home, but I got pretty sick in the middle of the month, which seriously slowed me down. Among other things, my voice couldn’t be used for recording for over two weeks. I did manage to start much of the remodeling and planning of my new facility though. My new website and training software projects also made progress especially since they are being handled by others.

It goes without saying that I am also always striving to be a better husband, father, friend and mentor to all of the people in my life. I don’t really consider these to be things that I confine to goal-making and planning at the beginning of the year.

I would like to take this opportunity to wish everyone a truly heartfelt happy new year, and I hope that everyone uses this time to reflect on their goals and progress. Over the past several years I have made hundreds of new friends in person through training and thousands of contacts through professional activities and this blog. Many of you have reached out to me here and on Linked In, especially from other countries. I would like to pass on some advice and words of encouragement to those of you getting started in the automation field:

Many of you are getting formal education and degrees, while others are taking classes or online training, hoping that these will lead to better opportunities and well paying jobs. I receive hundreds of unsolicited resume’s and job requests every year from people looking for work.

One of the “resolutions” I made when I closed my business in 2006 was to never have employees again. Though sometimes I am tempted when I see the wealth of opportunities for growth out there, I have managed to turn my new business into something I am very happy doing without bringing others into the mix.

At the same time I recognize the struggles others are going through. The best thing I can advise others to do is be patient. Before trying to get a job in another country, develop your resume by getting some good experience right where you are. If you aren’t the very best where you are, why would someone who doesn’t even know you in another place want you to come there?

I get a lot of contacts from people who have just gotten advanced degrees or technical training who hope to pick up a job here in the US or outside of their home country. Even for people with lots of experience and advanced degrees this is very difficult to do. In this country you have to be sponsored by the company that hires you, and they have to show that they couldn’t find someone here to do the work. For every one of these jobs, there are thousands of applicants.

The most important thing you can do in my opinion to have a great career in the automation world is to develop a passion for the field. Of course your resume needs to have those classes, degrees and experience to get the interview, but ultimately you are going to have to convince a real person that you are a better choice than the thousands of others who want the same job. This is not something you can fake, your enthusiasm for the work needs to shine through. No class or degree is going to provide this.

I hope everyone has a wonderful 2017, and remember to keep learning!

Posted in Life, Thoughts Tagged with: , , , , ,

Automation Training is Hiring!


As many of you know, for the past three years or so I have been teaching PLC, HMI and SCADA classes for Automation Training, a Canadian company. During that time I have visited many places and met a lot of great people.

Now Automation Training has grown to the point where they have more class requests than they have instructors to teach them. The owner, Steve Woodhouse, asked me last week if I knew of anyone who might be interested in teaching for AT, and I told him I’d look around.

I do know several good integrators in my area who might be good candidates; they have the requisite experience. But as I mentioned to Steve, knowing how to do something does not necessarily make someone a good teacher of that thing.

What Automation Training is looking for is someone who knows primarily Allen-Bradley or Siemens PLCs very well (5-10+ years of in-depth, continuous experience) and has good communications skills and patience. Oh, and there is of course travel involved, but most people who work with PLCs, at least as integrators, are used to that. Most of the classes are on the AB SLC-500 and ControlLogix platforms, and the Siemens S7-300 or TIA platforms. AT also holds classes in WonderWare, FactoryTalk View SE and ME, Kinetix Motion, Safety PLCs and more, but the vast majority of class requests are for AB and Siemens PLCs.

If you think you might be interested in teaching classes for Automation Training in the US or Canada you can contact Steve at 866-532-7628 or through the website at If you have any questions on what its like to teach classes for AT you can also contact me here and I’ll get back to you. You would be working as a contractor, so this is not a standard employment position. This type of work is best for people who already contract as an integrator or who are semi-retired from a teaching or technical position.

I’ve really enjoyed teaching for AT and hope to continue doing it for the foreseeable future. You get to meet a lot of different people and see a lot of places, and you have control over which weeks you want to work. Overall I recommend it highly!

Posted in Contracting, Training, Travel Tagged with: ,

PLC Hardware and Programming – Multi-Platform Manual

Over the past few months I’ve mentioned that I am working on a new online course for PLC’s. Almost a month ago I posted a request for pictures due to some of the publisher restrictions on that sort of thing. I’m happy to say all of that has been resolved, and the manual has officially been published! The above video explains how you can get one, either from me or online at Amazon, Barnes and Noble and various other places. If you are annoyed by videos, the gist of the one above is that I now have a bunch of copies and am selling them (via PayPal only at this time) for $32 + shipping. This is a couple of dollars less than Amazon, who has it listed at $33.99. Just send me an e-mail at and I can hook you up.

This video is the intro to the course itself that I have posted on the course site. It’s an overview of the course, but since the course follows the outline of the manual it also gives you an idea of what’s in the book. This is NOT an advanced course, and it is not specific to any particular PLC, but it does leverage Allen-Bradley and Siemens more than others. It does discuss most types of available instructions and has a pretty cool PLC and computer history section. I plan on creating an advanced technique-based course after I finish this one.

The process of creating the manual and the class has involved a pretty huge learning curve. Among other things I have had to learn the LMS (Learning Management System) platform on Thinkific, The video editing software from Camtasia, self-publishing with AuthorHouse, and how hard it is to record yourself through many hours of retakes. These two videos use some of the features available on the Camtasia program, including audio music clips, fading, pixellating and a bunch of other little details. While I am getting better at editing and producing all of this, I’ve got a long way to go before I’m a pro. Speaking in front of the camera is one of the particular things I’m learning a lot about. I teach classes for Automation Training all over the country several times a month and have no problem getting in front of people and speaking, but its a lot more difficult when I have some specific rehearsed thing I need to say.

I’ve learned some interesting things about myself while doing it though, like if you tilt your head up when you speak you can come across as an arrogant a$$, if you tilt your head down you can look very confused, and waving your hands around for no apparent reason (“gestures”), can distract people from the fact that you’re kind of funny looking. Oh, and that I’m old and have hair growing out of my ears.

Anyway, if you are interested in picking up a copy of the manual send me an e-mail, or visit one of the stores I listed above. I’d love some feedback on it. There are several exercises in it, and though the answers are in the back of the book, if you e-mail me with questions I’ll be happy to discuss them with you.

Posted in PLCs, The Course Tagged with: , , ,

Automation Simulation


In my quest to produce online training classes I have been investigating some of the different types of industrial automation and PLC simulators available.

My intent here is to find two different things: 1. A PLC programming simulator that is free or very low cost that can be used by students on their own computer to simulate and do exercises, and 2. A Process or Machine simulator that includes PLC and HMI programming tools and visualization of components.

symbol1One of my requirements is that the software be either non-brand-specific, or multi-platform. In my PLC training manual (recently published by the way), I use a generic addressing method as shown in this image. The intent is to be able to substitute any platform’s address where the red caption is, or make it invisible if using tags. The blue text could then be used either as a symbol (for non-tag-based platforms) or as a tag. All of this would need to be accessible in a list such as a symbol or tag database. This pretty much eliminates any of the major brand’s emulators, though I have been using Allen-Bradley’s RSLogix 5000 software with aliases to generic tag structures with some success.  The problem with that is that it is far too expensive for students.

The center image above shows a screenshot of “LogixPro”, available from The Learning Pit. I haven’t checked this out, but at only $35 it looks like a good option for those wanting to play around with Allen-Bradley’s SLC and Micrologix platform. Again, for me this is too brand-specific. It also looks like The Learning Pit kind of does what I am planning to do, online PLC training.

I also would like to link the simulation program to some graphics so that students can visualize their programming results. There are a lot of packages that simulate factory floor equipment. In the picture at the top of this post is Siemen’s PLM (Product Lifecycle Management) software. This can be used to create a virtual factory floor. It doesn’t interface with the Siemens Step7 software though, and even if it did it would hardly be generic…

I found a lot of other plant floor simulators when checking online. This list of simulation and modeling software on Automation World’s site had a lot of good products from Cybosoft, Mynah, Cenit and others, but they are not compatible with PLC or automation software.

Last week I also participated in a demo of Famic’s Automation Studio. There are two versions of this software, the Professional Edition, and the Educational Edition. Unfortunately I don’t qualify for the Educational Edition, which would probably be less expensive than the $6000 price tag of the Professional.

The demo was pretty cool. A PLC program can be written that will drive pneumatic and hydraulic circuits, which in turn can be embedded in a graphical simulation of a machine or process. The software seemed heavily oriented toward the pneumatic and hydraulic simulations, libraries of components could be imported from several manufacturers and placed into the simulation. There are drawing tools that can be used to animate the visualization, but the programmer would have to be pretty adept at creating graphics; it is not 3D. The PLC software itself is pretty basic, but it does appear to contain most of the instructions needed for training. There is also electrical circuit simulation capability.

Unfortunately for me, the price is still too high to use on a per-student basis. I could buy an actual PLC, HMI and software for each student station at that price, though the pneumatics and hydraulic training capability would be nice. From what I understand, the full-blown design package is more like $20,000.

I also just downloaded Factory I/O’s free trial of PLC simulation software. It is certainly more within the price range I am looking for at 695 Euro’s/seat, and it says it works with Allen-Bradley, Siemens, Modicon and CodeSys. I have 30 days to try it out and will write a bit more after I see what it can do.

Overall there seems to be a lot of stuff out there, but nothing that does exactly what I want it to. I like Automation Studio’s pneumatics, hydraulics and electrical training environment, I could use something like WonderWare, Ignition or A-B’s FactoryTalk View for the visualization part, and maybe something from CodeSys or PLCOpen as a PLC platform, but there doesn’t seem to be much that combines it all together. I am also going to evaluate using a SoftPLC, but I am afraid the cost is going to be exorbitant.

If anyone has any suggestions or comments let me know!

Posted in Software & Programming, Training Tagged with: , , ,

Advantages of Re-Usable Code


Recently I’ve seen some good discussions on PLCs (Programmable Logic Controllers) vs. PACs (Programmable Automation Controllers), and it got me thinking about what really differentiates the two. Some have said that it is having a more powerful processor, or more capable software. Others have said that it is the ability to fully utilize all of the IEC 61131 programming languages and capabilities.

In the US, many programmers base their knowledge and abilities on their experience with Allen-Bradley’s products. After all, probably 70% or more of the installed base in US manufacturing consists of A-B PLCs. If so, the ControlLogix family was a huge jump in the capability of PLCs; among other improvements over the SLC and PLC5 families are the fact that it is tag-based, allows the use of UDTs, and has Add-On Instructions (AOIs). Tags could also be made local to each program, allowing them to be duplicated for re-use.

But all of those capabilities except for being tag-based already existed years before that on other platforms. IEC 61131 has existed since 1993 or so, and other PLCs leveraged that early on. Siemens for instance has had User Defined Types or Structures since the S7 platform came out, and local variables could also be defined within Functions and Function Blocks. As a matter of fact, Siemens’ Function Blocks (FBs) are very similar to Allen-Bradley’s AOIs, except that the retentive values have to be included in a separate data block.

In my opinion, one of the most important differences between the older, register-only based systems and the more modern ones is the ability to build re-usable code blocks. Platforms that support this must have several important features:

1. Local vs. Global variables. Re-usable code must have variables that apply to each instance of the code; ideally only formatting the data once for the original code. What I mean by this is that a list of tags or symbols should not have to be re-named for each instance or call. For instance, duplicating a subroutine several times and iterating the addresses inside of it, though it saves time, isn’t really re-usable code.

2. User-Defined Data Types. Creating UDTs allows structures to be built that can be exported from one application to another. They allow components to be described using generic terms such as “Speed”, “Start”, “Reject”, etc. UDTs don’t require tag based systems, but they do require advanced use of symbols. This is one reason the Allen-Bradley SLC and Micrologix systems really don’t allow re-usable code, while the S7 does, despite both being 1990s -era systems.

3. Protectable  Self-Contained Blocks. It is important that the code be contained in a block that allows variables to be passed in and out, and also protected so that users can’t change a specific instance of it. This requires a password or software key.

These are just some of the requirements. Other features like being able to write code in other IEC compliant PLC languages such as Structured Text also help make platforms much more powerful and “Rapid Code Development” friendly.

Whether your favorite platform uses subroutines with local variables or customizable instructions, reusable code is a critical part of creating powerful programs quickly! I am quite familiar with how Allen-Bradley and Siemens accomplish this, but I would love to hear how some other platforms allow for reusable code and what their methods are. Leave a comment here or send me an e-mail, I’d especially like to hear from users of CodeSys, Beckhoff, GE, Mitsubishi, Omron and Automation Direct!

Posted in PLCs, Software & Programming Tagged with: , , , , ,

I Need PLC Pictures!


For the last few months I have been working (slowly) on my new PLC course. Before getting too far into the videos on the Thinkific site, it made sense to me to complete a training manual. Well, I completed the manual and submitted it to the publisher, and that opened a can of worms.

canofworms1This picture is an example of the kind of problems I am having. If you Google “Can of Worms”, you will find probably hundreds of images. If you then refine the image search under search tools, the options decrease drastically. This image is the only actual can of worms that showed in my search when filtering for usage rights.

I found the PLC images above on the internet and made a graphic for the manual. After submitting the manual to the publisher, they replied that I would need to obtain permission from the owner of each image; I then had my editor send inquiries to various PLC manufacturers for good PLC pictures.

My intent was to try and represent all of the “major” manufacturers in my course. So far the only companies that have responded are Automation Direct and the US division of Omron.

Embedding pictures in blog posts vs. putting them in a published work are two very different things. If something is deemed to be “commercial”, the options are very limited. This blog of course is not a commercial venture, but the manual is.

My best option now is to find pictures of control panels with PLCs in them or hope that some of the manufacturers eventually get back to me. Unfortunately this means my PLC manual is on hold.

I am asking for help from the readers of my blog and from the PLC forums on Linked In. What I need is at least one good high resolution PLC picture from each of the brands listed above. I have managed to find a couple of Allen-Bradley ControlLogix and Siemens S7 pictures, but am striking out on the GE, Mitsubishi and Modicon. So if you have some pictures of control panels with PLC racks in them, I can probably crop the PLC part out. It may not be as clean as the pictures above, but I am getting a bit desperate right now.

I also need pictures of sensors, relays, valves and various other devices. Here are a couple of the other graphics I need to replace:


So far the best response I have had when asking for help has been from Automation Direct. They have provided lots of images from their website and overall just been super helpful. Unfortunately I can’t say the same about some of the other manufacturers. Sending them e-mails is kind of like sending feedback to Microsoft; it just disappears into a black hole.

Anything you can provide will be helpful; if I use your picture I will be sure give you credit in the manual/book. Please help me out!

Posted in PLCs, The Book, The Course Tagged with: ,

Make vs. Buy: An Infographic from Dorner Conveyors

The Decision to Make or Buy Your Next Conveyor

This is a pretty cool article and Infographic from Dorner. I used to use them a lot in the old Automation Consulting Services, Inc. and working with NAS.

As they mention in the infographic and in their blog, a lot of factors went into the decision on whether to make or buy a conveyor. NAS built most of their own conveyors, mostly because they had the expertise and equipment to do it well. Dorner makes a lot of tabletop chain conveyors, and NAS usually bought their finished systems from them if they needed a stand-alone system, but if something needed to be built into a machine they usually just bought components and built conveyors as a “kit”.

A mill and lathe are pretty much minimum requirements if you want to get into building your own conveyors. Most of the track and chain can be bought and assembled, but being able to key shafts and turn them down are necessities.

Some of the factors in the infographic matter less if you are a custom machine builder. Time is less of a factor because the product is the conveyor, and the assemblers are used to building conveyors. Space is also not an issue because they reserve the space for the ordered machine anyway.

On the other hand when I worked for Wright Industries they never built their own conveyors. For one thing it really wasn’t a part of their core business, and for another their internal design and manufacturing costs were much higher than NAS’s.

ACS Tabletop Chain Conveyor, TRW Toyoda, 2005

Here is a picture of the only tabletop chain conveyor I ever built. My company was small enough that this kind of project could stand by itself, we simply ordered all of the parts and subbed out the machining that we couldn’t do. Since we were mostly a controls company, the only way this was justified is that we got to integrate the conveyor into their manufacturing system.

NAS-Tennex 1998, "Rubber Band" conveyor

Here is a conveyor that is not something you will find in catalogs, it is pretty much always going to be more economical to build it yourself. There isn’t much cost in the components, so the markup for engineering and labor would be too high to justify.

Whatever your decision on making vs. buying conveyors, it is definitely something you should become more educated on. there are lots of good resources out there, many of them included in manufacturer’s catalogs and certainly on websites like Dorner’s. If you need further help in decision making or design, there are always companies like mine out there that can help, check out my Resources page for more.

Posted in Consulting, Conveyors, Engineering, Machine Design, Vendors and Manufacturers Tagged with: , , , , ,



Industrial automation has changed drastically over the past century. From the Charlie Chaplin style factories, where companies were reliant on people to manage the factory floor, to today, where factories are highly automated with only a few people present on the production lines. As a result of this ever greater reliance on machines, software is becoming increasingly responsible, complex, and demanding. This does not come without its challenges. Due to the greater complexity, programs are more difficult to maintain, more time consuming, and potentially therefore more expensive. This is why quality is taking such an important role these days.

Unlike in other industries, such as that of embedded software and computer science, there has not previously been a dedicated standard for Programmable Logic Controller (PLC) programs. This has meant that programs were not measured against anything and were often of a poor quality. But that’s where the independent association PLCopen has come in and set the standard with the release of their coding guidelines. These guidelines are a set of good practice programming rules for PLCs, which will help to control and enhance programming methods within industrial automation.

PLCopen, whose mission is to provide industrial control programming solutions, collaborated with members from a number of companies in different industries to create these coding guidelines. These companies include PLC vendors such as Phoenix Systems, Siemens, and Omron, to software vendors such as Itris Automation and CoDeSys, and educational institutions such as RWTH Aachen. These guidelines were inspired by some pre-existing standards from other domains such as IEC61131-3, JSF++ coding standard and MISRA-C, and they are the product of three years of work by the working group. PLCopen’s reference standard can be used for testing the quality of all PLC codes, independent of brand and industry.

PLCopen’s coding guidelines are made up of 64 rules, which cover the naming, comments and structure of the code. By following these guidelines, the quality of the code will be improved and there will be greater consistency amongst developers. This will result in greater efficiency, as better readability means a faster debug time, and a program that is easier to maintain. This then results in lower costs as less time is required in order to maintain the program, and the maintenance should be easy enough for both an internal or external programmer as the code will be more straightforward. If the original developer fails to follow certain guidelines when creating a program, this could obstruct other developers and maintenance teams when working with the code during the product lifecycle, thus creating delays and additional costs.

In safety-critical industries, there is the standard IEC 61508 which in 2011 was also extended to PLCS. However, as quality is becoming an ever more important factor across the board, as programs become bigger and more complex, it is generally good practice to follow a set of rules or a standard in all industries. PLCopen’s coding guidelines suggest a standard that can be used across all industries to greatly improve the quality of the code and, as a result, to help companies save time and money. The introduction of such a standard will allow PLC programs to be verified not only from the simple functionality perspective but also from a coding perspective by confirming that good practice programming rules have been followed in their creation. Consistency across PLC programs can only be achieved through the respect of a global corporate or industrial standard, with PLCopen now being the de facto standard in the automation industry.

With quality playing a greater role in industry and with companies always looking for cost saving methods, the answer is to use some sort of standard or set of rules in order to meet these goals. PLCopen have created this standard to improve quality and consistency across PLC programs and so that individual industries and companies don’t have to go to the effort of creating a set of rules themselves. In addition to the internal benefits, this standard will also allow companies to enforce their quality requirements on suppliers, software contractors
and system integrators. The only issue for now is that the process for verifying these rules is done manually by most users as they are unaware that some tools are available to do this automatically. But overall, following a standard such as the one proposed by PLCopen, will greatly improve the quality of the program and will save time and money throughout the whole duration of the product lifecycle.

The PLCopen coding guidelines v1.0 are available to download for free from the PLCopen website,

PLCopen will be present at SPS IPC Drives 2016 in Nuremberg from the 22nd – 24th November. They can be found in hall 7, stand 174 to answer any questions or for further information.


This post was contributed by Robyn Buckland, from Itris Automation.

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